BARKSDALE AIR FORCE BASE, La. -- From the aircraft commander's seat of a nuclear attack-capable B-52 bomber known as Lucky 13, Lt. Col. Eric Sikes sees trouble.
Thanks to political gridlock in Washington D.C., unplanned and indiscriminate across-the-board budget cuts caused by congressional sequestration have hit the bomber pilots and crews in Sikes' squadron. For a month now, they've been flying one-third less missions than they need to maintain the skills to fly B-52s with precision.
Those missions are critical. When President Barack Obama tells Iran or North Korea that "all options are on the table" to force a halt to their nuclear weapons programs, he means that airplanes like Lucky 13 are ready to attack with conventional or nuclear weapons. When the president orders B-52s to fly to South Korea in a show of force against North Korea, as he did in mid-March, the bombers and crews have to be razor-sharp ready.
The "sequester" cuts have generated gales of political bluster in Washington. But here and at countless other military installations, they have hit hard, with real consequences.
"If the president needs 100 percent of all his (B-52) crew members, he will not have them," said Sikes, who commands the 20th Bomb Squadron.
"This is a real-world impact" of what happens in Washington, he added. "I was surprised at how fast we got hit."
He is quick to add, "The president can be reassured -- nuclear deterrence will still happen, conventional operations will still happen, expeditionary operations will still happen -- but with a reduced number of assets. Morale is going to take a hit. But we are professionals. We'll keep our combat edge as sharp as we can."
Until now, it's been difficult to measure the consequences of the cuts in defense spending: $41 billion whacked out of the budget between now and Sept. 30, with more than half, $22 billion, to come out of accounts that pay for operations and maintenance, according to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel.
The "real-world" consequence: with reduced flying time, Sikes' pilots can't all practice in-flight refueling, the trickiest, most delicate and dangerous part of long-distance missions.
It takes cool nerves to close the distance between a lumbering, bomb-laden B-52 and a gas-heavy jet tanker to within spitting distance, and to hold it steady through nighttime turbulence without colliding or causing the probe to yank out and spray fuel over hot engines. And it take plenty of practice.
Without it, some crews will either be grounded in a crisis -- or will fly with increased risk.
"This can't be learned in a simulator," Sikes said. You have to take the jet up and move it around, feel it with your fingertips, react quickly to the unforeseen, encounter what he calls "the fog and friction of war."
The budget cuts have forced Sikes and other commanders to cut training missions from six hours back to four. Six hours was barely enough time to get a B-52 airborne, practice offensive and defensive maneuvers, get to a bomb range, practice the complex procedures of precision bombing, meet up with a tanker to refuel, and return home. Four hour max means less training.
Worse, because of budget cuts elsewhere, there are fewer airborne tankers to train with. Officers in charge of training here say they're trying to manage with two-thirds less time available to rendezvous with a tanker over the western United States. That means that some new pilots are taking longer to get trained, and that others are being assigned to operational squadrons without the requisite training in aerial refueling and other skills.
"They send guys over to us with a waiver" indicating they haven't yet checked out on some skills, said Capt. Matt Munska of the 20th Bomb Squadron. "Now I have new guys who are not mission capable. And with our reduced hours it's hard to get them tanker training." By shuffling things around, he said "I can make it for a little while. But we will have more and more guys without proficiency."
For the aircraft technicians and wrench-turners who keep the B-52s flying into their sixth decade of service (the newest B-52 rolled off the assembly line in 1962), the budget cuts have been a relief, at least in the short term. Grounded airplanes mean more time for maintenance. "We have more time to fix minor discrepancies, like burned-out light bulbs or missing panels," said Staff Sgt. Brad Bowen, chew chief for a B-52 named Big Stick.
But the budget cuts will be felt more heavily as the fiscal year staggers toward a close at the end of September. Sikes is expecting his squadron's flying hours to be cut again this summer, to about half of what he could fly last year. His solution is to keep as many of his pilots as he can fully trained and ready. The rest, he said, will have to get by with training in the B-52 simulator and classroom work.
"Getting up into the air, dealing with the fog and friction of war, just isn't going to be there," he said.
From a higher altitude, the problem looks even more severe. Lt. Gen. James M. Kowalski is commander of Global Strike Command, the Air Force headquarters that oversees the nation's nuclear and conventional bomber and missile attack force. In an interview, Kowalski said budget cuts scheduled to take place over the next eight years will make today's problems look minor, because the effects are cumulative.
"We're going out and getting a payday loan, so that everything from now to the end of this year will seem like it's okay," he said, referring to the practice of borrowing for today's expenses from your next paycheck.
Some pilots are being sidelined and some civilians furloughed, Kowalski said. "But a lot of the payback on doing business this way is going to happen next year, because next year we're going to be taking about a 10 percent cut at the same time we're paying back for this year." Pilots who are not qualified this year will be stacked up to get qualified next year along with incoming new pilots, and maintenance that's being deferred this year will be added to next year's scheduled maintenance burden.
"And there's going to be eight years of this!" Kowalski said. The accumulation of under-trained pilots and growing maintenance backlogs will collide with pressing demands to modernize the aging force. For instance, different weapons will be needed to replace the current Cold War force in order to hold at risk new nuclear powers like North Korea.
Kowalski said that as he travels around the bomber bases and missile launch facilities that are under his command, he strives to remind his troops that the job they're doing is vital, even if troops in Afghanistan and daring Special Forces raids get more attention.
But with shrinking training opportunities, aging weapons systems and furloughed employees, "We are going to be in uncharted territory," Kowalski said. "It's not clear to me what kind of morale issues we're going to have long-term."