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TMCNet:  Report gives preview of potential Air Force cuts: Officials monitor local impact

[November 17, 2008]

Report gives preview of potential Air Force cuts: Officials monitor local impact

(News Herald, The (Panama City, FL) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) Nov. 17--PANAMA CITY, Fla. -- No military cuts are on Tyndall Air Force Base's radar. But with an estimated economic impact of $631 million, even rumors of cuts can ripple through military communities.

That's why an Inside Defense report about the possible retirement of 137 F-15s has raised eyebrows in a community that enjoys the prestige and benefits of being home to the F-15s training squadrons.

According to the Inside Defense article, the cutbacks, scheduled for the 2010 fiscal year, would slash deeply into F-15 numbers, in addition to grounding 177 F-16 "Falcons" and nine A-10 "Thunderbolt IIs."

The Inside Defense article is based on a leaked version of the Air Force's Program Objective Memorandum, a draft version of the Air Force budget that will be submitted later this year. In a released statement, the Air Force said the leaked document is a preliminary draft and subject to change.

With so much at stake, Bay County's military installations are closely guarded by two groups, the Bay Defense Alliance and the Chamber of Commerce Military Affairs Committee.

"None of these things are surprises to us. A lot of times the budget drills happen and the community never hears about them," said Tom Neubauer, president of the Bay Defense Alliance. "But the thing that's happening right now across the entire military, and the Air Force in particular, is they don't know what the budget is going to look like next year."

The Air Force is "looking at how can we generate $3 or $4 billion quickly, and one of the ways to do that is to eliminate airplanes," he said. "But they can't do that in such a fashion that they can't do the missions."

Potential cuts

When the F-22 Raptor was conceived, the intent was for it to gradually replace the F-15 as the U.S. primary air-to-air fighter. In 2000, the Air Force released an Environmental Impact Statement titled "Conversion of two F-15 fighter squadrons to F-22 fighter squadrons at Tyndall AFB, Florida."

Per the study, the intent was to supplant two of the three existing F-15 squadrons at Tyndall. By the first quarter of Fiscal Year 2009, Tyndall was to be home to 60 F-22s and 39 F-15s. Currently, Tyndall is home to 29 F-22s and 53 F-15s.

However, when the study was released in 2000, the Air Force still was expecting the F-22 inventory to top out at 334 airframes. But as budgets tightened and costs increased, that projection fell to 277 in 2003 and the current procurement goal of 183 in 2006.

As procurement goals fell, training numbers fell, too. The 1st Fighter Squadron, an F-15 training squadron, was deactivated Dec. 15, 2006, after the 43rd Fighter Squadron, the only training squadron for the F-22, came online. However, there are no known plans to deactivate either of the two remaining F-15 squadrons at Tyndall or to flag a second F-22 training squadron.

Tight budget

In light of what could be the beginning of more lean years for the military, Steve Southerland, chairman of the Military Affairs Committee, said reports of cuts can be jarring.

"You just start running through this scenario of 'what ifs,'" he said. "You start being concerned about the defense budget."

But even minor concerns over the budget should be waylaid by the actual numbers, said Loren Thompson, a defense analysis with the Lexington Institute, a libertarian-leaning think tank. Early estimates place the FY2010 request at more than $500 billion and includes funding for the F-15, in addition to the F-22 and its cousin, the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. In fact, Thompson said the requested funding covers the gamut of both Air Force and Navy air power.

"This may be the last budget in which all of the fighter programs are robustly funded. But they certainly are covered, fairly lucratively, in the 2010 request administration has put together. Now, we'll have to see whether the new administration embraces that request," he said.

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Copyright (c) 2008, The News Herald, Panama City, Fla.
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