FAIRBANKS, Alaska - The Air Force on Tuesday grounded the F-16 squadron at Eielson Air Force Base and several other squadrons throughout the service in response to federal budget reductions.
The reduction affects about one-third of the active-duty combat aircraft — fighter, bomber, aggressor and airborne warning and control squadrons — stationed in the United States, Europe and the Pacific, according to an Air Force statement Tuesday.
“The 18th Aggressor Squadron has stood down flying operations as of April 9 due to a lack of flying hour funding,” said Capt. Joost Verduyn, chief of public affairs for the 354th Fighter Wing at Eielson, in an email response to the News-Miner. “The planes will stand down through the remaining fiscal year (through Sept. 30), barring any changes to funding.
“Flying hours originally assigned to the 354th Fighter Wing have been cut and reassigned to units preparing to deploy,” he said.
Tuesday’s Air Force statement issued out of Langley Air Force Base in Virginia, said some units currently deployed will be grounded when they return from their deployments and that active-duty crews assigned to Air Force Reserve or Air National Guard A-10 or F-16 squadrons will also be grounded.
The groundings will remain in place for all affected units until the end of the fiscal year on Sept. 30, unless Congress and President Obama act to provide funds.
“We’re entering uncharted territory in terms of how we’ve had to take this year’s cuts and make adjustments to mitigate the most serious impacts,” said Gen. Mike Hostage, commander of the Air Force’s Air Combat Command, in a prepared statement. “Remaining as mission-ready as possible for combatant commanders is our priority, and we’re prioritizing spending to ensure this imperative is met.”
The groundings were caused by a reduction to the Air Combat Command’s operations and maintenance account, according to the Air Force, which said the result is that 45,000 fewer training hours would be flown from now until the new fiscal year starts on Oct. 1.
Eielson is home to the 18th Aggressor Squadron, whose mission is to serve as a training force against other units. The unit has 21 F-16s and is the principal unit at Eielson, but Air Force officials are engaged in an long-running effort that could see the squadron transferred to Anchorage.
During the grounding, pilots will use flight simulators and conduct academic training to maintain basic skills and aircraft knowledge, Verduyn said.
“Maintainers will complete required maintenance on the F-16s and clear up any backlogs of scheduled maintenance and inspections,” he added.
News of the groundings follows the announcement last week’s cancellation of the biennial Northern Edge training exercise scheduled for this summer and in which Eielson was to play a major role. The Alaska-based exercise was to include about 9,000 members of the military from several branches. That announcement itself followed the cancellation of the second Red Flag exercise, a smaller training program that also involves Eielson.
Both exercises were canceled for budget reasons, according to the Air Force.
The grounding order will also indirectly affect F-22 aircraft operating out of Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson in Anchorage. Eielson aircraft regularly, and as recently as this past weekend, fly as part of training exercises conducted for F-22s based at Elmendorf-Richardson.
“[T]he 18th Aggressor Squadron’s routine support to the F-22s of the 3rd Wing at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson will cease due to the directed stand down,” Verduyn said.
The Air Force statement said air crews lose some skills needed to fly combat missions within 90 to 120 days of not flying and that 60 to 90 days of training is needed to return crews to acceptable status.
“This will have a significant and multiyear impact on our operational readiness,” Hostage said. “But right now, there is no other acceptable way to implement these cuts.”
Contact managing editor Rod Boyce at 459-7585. Follow him on Twitter: @FDNMeditor.