Monday, June 17, 2013 | 2 a.m.
Nellis Air Force Base
Charles Moore Jr. is no stranger to the fears and anxieties of war, having flown more than 600 combat hours in fighter jets and now serving as a commander of a collection of squadrons responsible for more than 130 aircraft that comprise the Air Force’s most diverse flying wing.
But these days, nothing consumes the brigadier general more than the fear of what’s happening at Nellis Air Force Base — the sounds of silence.
Flight hours have been cut. The noises that give the base life – aircraft blasting off the runway and tearing across the sky – have been muted.
Thunderbird jets have been grounded; the multinational air-to-air combat training simulation Red Flag has been canceled; pilots are on stand down.
It is a quiet the base has been adjusting to since the cuts came into full effect on June 1 – a muting Moore fears will become the norm.
Silence: the sound of sequestration.
“The big thing here is it is a heck of a lot quieter than it normally is,” Moore said. “There is limited flying; a couple test missions that still have flight hours are being conducted, but the first thing you notice around here is it is very, very quiet.”
Moore is commander of the Nellis-based 57th Wing, whose jobs include providing “relevant and realistic” combat training for the Air Force. The wing is in charge of organizing and running Red Flag, the Thunderbirds, the advanced weapons and tactics school and other programs at Nellis that provide advanced training to airmen and officers.
It is the 57th Wing’s job to adapt to this new reality. Moore and his staff were told to “expect certain cuts” beginning March 1 after Congress had failed to agree on a deficit-reduction package, which triggered the sequestration’s automatic across-the-board cuts for military and non-military government programs.
The cuts came slowly at first. On April 5 the Thunderbirds went on their last sortie; in May they were told to wrap up their final training event.
Then came the stand down order, effective June 1.
The Air Combat Command, headquartered at Langley Air Force Base, cut about 6,800 flight hours at Nellis – about a third of its flight hours – as part of an Air Force-wide effort to reduce 45,000 flight hours. It begins a historic shift to tiered readiness, meaning about a third of Air Force bases are no longer “combat mission ready.”
“This is the first time 1947 the Air Force has gone to tiered readiness,” Moore said. “We’ve never seen that before in 60-70 years. … That’s significant.”
As a result of sequestration, several training programs have been canceled: Red Flag’s July session and four scheduled dates for Green Flag West, which provides air-to-ground combat training. Also canceled is Nellis’ popular Aviation Nation air show and open house.
The Air Force Weapons School’s second session also has been canceled. The school trains about 80 officers every six months. After their graduation, those officers go on to take advanced tactical roles in the military.
The cuts at Nellis equate to about $80 million in savings for the Air Force. Eliminating Red Flag and Aviation Nation saps about $54 million worth of revenue from the local economy, Moore said.
To make up for those cuts, Moore and the 57th Wing have begun searching for other ways to be productive and keep the airmen and officers fresh. Flight simulators are replacing some of the training pilots receive in the cockpit, and the 57th Wing is re-evaluating the Top Gun school’s syllabus to reflect the cuts. Meanwhile, the maintenance staff is catching up on training and teaching younger maintenance workers.
The base also is taking the opportunity to improve and update its Air Force tactics and procedure manual, as well as using the ground time to work on other projects.
“We’ve been through times like this before. One of the things that helps us get through it is great leadership, hard work and innovation,” Moore said.
Still, the cuts could have a severe impact on the skills of airmen and officers. The base is not fully equipped with flight simulators for each aircraft to appropriately train pilots. Even if it were, Moore said simulations hardly compared to the experience gained with in-flight training.
Red Flag and Green Flag West provide training that can’t be replicated anywhere else in the world, Moore added. Meanwhile, each canceled weapon’s school session robs the military of 80 potential high-level commanders and tacticians, and could have rippling effects for decades to come, he said.
“The bigger concern is that the impact the stand down has on the Air Force. We are the home for advanced training that can’t take place anywhere else,” Moore said. “It has an immediate impact on our ability to go to war.”
The cuts are scheduled to last until October, when a new budget goes into effect to start the 2014 federal fiscal year. Moore won’t know what cuts will occur until budget discussions that will start in the late summer. Still, he isn’t hopeful.
“Sequestration impacts were a decade long,” Moore said. “We have no direction on what fiscal year 2014 looks like … but it doesn’t require rocket scientists to figure out if something doesn’t change, we face severe consequences.”
The quiet on the base, Moore fears, is here to stay.