The military is taking a double whammy as it begins preparing for a transition to a peacetime force, something that hasn't existed in more than a decade.
First, there's the "peace dividend." That's essentially cuts in military spending caused by the drawdown of forces as the war in Afghanistan finally ends.
That doesn't translate as much as you'd think to lower taxes, or even deficit reduction, however. Essentially, every Congressman back in D.C. is trying to find a way to divert as much as they can to pork projects in their own districts.
Meanwhile, the military gets much leaner -- almost anorexic.
Around here, more people than normal know better, but in much of the country our military successes are see as being based primarily on high-tech toys -- like Predator drones firing laser-guided missiles.
What people -- and Congress -- seem to forget, is that all the high-tech toys in the world won't help you if you don't have a military force properly trained to use them. That's been our real strength -- our level and quality of training.
But those lords of logic in Congress don't seem to understand that. No war? No need to train anywhere nearly as much as we've been doing. Of course, that logic will get people killed the next time something pops up and we need to send our men and women into harm's way.
At the rate we're going right now, give it two years and a Boy Scout troop armed with baseball bats will be able to take on half our forces with a chance to win. Our enemies must be gloating over how much "victory disease" is going to gut us.
So, the first whammy is the budget cuts. The second is sequester.
Remember that deal struck over the artificial debt ceiling crisis in 2011? Since sequester was so bad, nobody would let it kick in. Right? Even after a very partisan bipartisan commission failed, it still wasn't going to happen. Someone would find a compromise to prevent it.
But it's now two years later and both party's political skills are only good for fingerpointing while their serious policy skills remain at the fingerpainting stage. It's easier to blame the other guy than work the problem.
So, sequester has kicked in -- and nobody seems to notice. Yet. It's like a mudslide. It starts out slow, builds up speed and eventually wipes out entire towns.
There are approximately 420 civilian employees at MHAFB that will be affected by sequester, people who perform integral functions such as maintenance, intelligence, logistics, contracting and health care.
Furlough notices are already going out (the affected personnel will get at least 30 days notice) and beginning in late April most of the base's civilian employees will be furloughed one day a week for the last 22 weeks of the fiscal year, which equates to a 20 percent cut in their pay between April and the end of September.
There will be a few exceptions, for those deemed "mission critical," but surprisingly, for a military that prides itself on planning, as of last week the base still didn't have any firm guidelines from higher authority as to what jobs would be deemed mission critical.
Unless you think about it for a moment, a furlough sounds somewhat OK. Those people will still have a job. They'll just lose one dollar out of every five they've been earning.
But not many household budgets these days have a 20 percent "pad" that they don't really need to pay bills. This is going to hurt -- badly.
And it's effects are going to trickle down to Main Street (this is the real trickle down economics), because the loss to the local economy is the equivalent of losing 20 percent of the jobs on base -- that's 84 people.
If any business in town put 84 people out of work, or if the base suddenly cut 84 civilian employees, the panic level in town would be palpable. People would be screaming for the city's economic development office to find a new business to replace those jobs -- right now!
But since it's "just a cut in pay" until Congress gets its act together.... which means it could last until hell becomes a hockey rink, nobody's panicking -- although maybe they should.
DoD is doing what it can for these people. It will protect their health benefits and other benefits "where possible," a base spokesperson said, adding that "all civilian employees are welcome to schedule appointments with the Airmen and Family Readiness Center on base who will assist them with any concerns they may have."
Besides the people actually employed directly by the base, there also are those employed by the contractors. But a lot of contractors are complaining that they have no clue what is happening. Some contracts will be canceled due to the cuts and sequester, some will be held in abeyance. At a time of year when some contractors typically begin hiring an influx of employees to work in the warmer months, they're standing pat until they know whether or not they've got jobs to work on. So it's not just jobs "lost" that we face locally, but jobs that won't materialize as well.
In part, due to the cuts in military spending more than sequester, some contracting jobs will just go away, although nobody seems to know how many or which ones at this point.
But the school district is worried that may drop the type B military impact aid student numbers (those who live in town but have a parent that works on base). If they drop far enough, the district won't get any impact aid "B" funding. For that matter, the district isn't sure right now if Congress is going to approve any money for impact aid at all.
When you add the poor state funding levels for education, the legislature cutting revenue to the schools, and drops in impact aid and other federal funding, it potentially could quickly add up to revenue loses approaching the amount the voters approved for an emergency levy last year. So the legislature and Congress may create conditions where everything the voters tried to prevent last year will happen anyway. Thanks a lot.
And finally, going back to the base, there's the flightline issues. With all the cuts and sequester effects, the number of flying hours will be going down. The "sound of freedom" in our skies will be heard less often.
"We are still working through the details of exactly how Mountain Home flying operations will be affected," 1st Lt. Phillip Davis, a spokesperson for the base's public affairs office, said this week. "Across the combat air forces (fighters, non-nuclear bombers, ISR, command-and-control and personnel recovery), the Air Force and Air Combat Command will move to a position of tiered readiness.
"ACC will stop or severely reduce flying operations for two-thirds of its squadrons. One-third of our crews -- with the highest priority going to those deploying or preparing to deploy -- will remain ready to perform combat operations," he said.
But, he noted: "Tiered readiness is not something the Air Force does normally because we are the ready force for America. Other services and our allies expect that airpower will deploy within hours of a crisis. We cannot do that unless units other than those committed to ongoing operations remain combat ready."
But in truth, DoD only has so much money to spend on gas, and it wouldn't be surprising if most of the planes out on base are parked by the end of spring, with pilots getting their "flying" done in simulators, rather than the real thing (the difference is significant). That will have serious impacts on combat certifications, mission readiness and flight pay.
DoD-wide cuts and sequestration also mean that some guys stuck in Afghanistan are going to be there longer than they expected, because the people who were supposed to replace them haven't gotten the training to qualify them to do so. Somehow, if I'm a Marine and somebody told me I wasn't coming home when my tour ended because Congress was playing politics, I just might "lock and load" long enough to march home to D.C. on my own and pointedly suggest they get their act together.
For the rest of us, sequestration will slowly start to be felt in more and more ways. National parks won't open as early this year and some services will be cut from those parks. Plan your vacations accordingly.
And think about how long it will take it you fly. I recently had a son-in-law take an extra day to fly from Montana to here because so many air traffic control centers had been shut down along his normal flight route that he wound up rerouted and with more and longer layovers.
A little thing, but little things ad up. And in the end, everyone is going to wind up paying for the efforts in Congress to "save" us money. From the front line to the flight line to the bread line, people are getting hurt.
It's time to end this madness with some reasonable compromise in Congress.