But, he added, that does not mean it will remain unaffected by reduced funding.
“Every major decision reflected in our (fiscal 2015) budget proposal hurts,” Welsh said. “Each of them reduces capability that our combatant commanders would love to have and believe they need. There are no more easy cuts.”
That sequestration is scheduled to return in fiscal 2016 cannot be ignored, the general said. To prepare, the Air Force must cut people and force structure now to create a force that is balanced enough that it can afford to train and operate beyond 2016, he said.
The Air Force began its budget planning by making two significant assumptions, Welsh said.
“The Air Force must be capable of fighting and winning a full-spectrum fight against a well-armed, well-equipped, well-trained enemy,” he said. And, today’s readiness and modernization for the future “cannot be an either-or decision.”
But, the general said, the overwhelming majority of reductions in the Air Force budget come in the readiness, force structure and modernization accounts.
“That's where the money is that we can affect,” Welsh continued. “Understanding that, we tried to create the best balance possible between readiness, capability and capacity across our five mission areas.”
The Bipartisan Budget Act of 2013 allowed the Air Force to fully fund its readiness accounts in fiscal 2015, he noted, but it didn’t address the service’s future needs.
“Even with continued funding at that level, … it'll take us 10 years to return to full readiness,” the general said. “It's a complicated equation. There's lots of things we've let slide to fund activity over the last 14 years.”
Trimming around the edges wouldn’t be enough to reduce the budget by the billions of dollars required by sequestration and other budget reductions, he said.
“So, we looked at cutting fleets of aircraft as a way to create the significant savings required. … (But) eliminating an entire fleet would leave us unable to provide air superiority for a full theater of operations. And no other service can do that,” Welsh said.
And, he said, combatant commanders wouldn’t support cuts to the intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance mission.
Next, the Air Force considered cuts to the mobility fleet, the general told committee members. But, he noted, Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno told him that the Army will need to be more responsive as it downsizes, and a further reduction of airlift assets was not a good idea.
“We looked at our refueling fleets, and we did consider divesting the KC-10 (Extender) as an option, but … we would have to cut many more KC-135 (Stratotankers) and KC-10s to achieve the same savings. And with that many KC-135s out of the fleet, we would not be able to meet our mission requirements,” Welsh said.
In looking for cuts to the strike mission fleet, he said, the Air Force considered several options. The A-10 Thunderbolt II, the F-16 Fighting Falcon and the F-15E Strike Eagle were all on the table, the general said.
“I am an A-10 pilot by trade," he said. "That's where I grew up in this business. And Betty and I have a son who is a Marine Corps infantry officer. Close air support is not an afterthought to me, and it is not going to be a secondary mission in the United States Air Force.
“But, close air support is not an aircraft,” he continued. “It's a mission, and we do it very, very well with a number of airplanes today.”
Cutting the A-10 provided the best value with the least loss of aircraft, Welsh said. The force would save $3.7 billion across the Future Years Defense Program by eliminating the fleet, and another $500 million in cost avoidance for upgrades that would no longer be needed, the general said.
“To achieve the same savings would require a much higher number of either F-16s or F-15E’s,” he said.
The Air Force conducted a detailed cost analysis of several options: cutting the A-10, the F-16, or the B-1 Lancer strategic bomber; deferring procurement of F-35 Lightning II joint strike fighters or standing down a number of fighter squadrons, the general said.
“The result showed that cutting the A-10 fleet was the lowest risk option from an operational perspective. And while no one, especially me, is happy about recommending divestiture of this great old friend, it's the right decision from a military perspective,” he said.
The decision is representative of the extremely difficult choices that the service is forced to make, Welsh said.
“The funding levels we can reasonably expect over the next 10 years dictate that for America to have a capable, credible and viable air force in the mid-2020s, we must get smaller -- now.”