Many Air Force squadrons grounded since April by the sequester have resumed training flights, but the Pentagon worries that 2014 budget restrictions could force cutbacks in flying hours again.
The planes took the air again on Monday after Congress approved $208 million in budget reprogramming last week that shifted money from modernization and procurement to training and war efforts. The budget juggling allows the Air Force to continue combat training and test operations for the rest of fiscal 2013, which ends Oct. 1, The Wall Street Journal reports.
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"Since April we've been in a precipitous decline with regard to combat readiness," Gen. Mike Hostage, who heads the Air Combat Command units, said in a statement. "Returning to flying is an important first step, but what we have ahead of us is a measured climb to recovery."
Air Force officials said the training cutbacks due to the sequester back in March left about 25 percent of combat pilots uncertified for aerial combat, dropping bombs, and landing their aircraft.
As a result, Lt. Gen. Burton Field, the deputy chief of staff for Air Force operations and plans, said the service would have been "very challenged to do a no-fly zone" in Syria or elsewhere if one had been called for.
Air Force officials warned that the reinstatement of full flight training operations is only the beginning of solving the problem. They worry about next year.
"The decision gets us through the next several months, but not the next several years," Hostage said. "While this paints a clearer picture of (fiscal 2013), important questions remain about (fiscal 2014) and beyond. Budget uncertainly makes it difficult to determine whether we'll be able to sustain a fully combat-ready force."
Some experts, however, say that the decision to cut funding for training and test operations was not a reckless one that left the service or the nation vulnerable.
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"If you needed them in a massive call-up, you have lots of units that are highly ready," Gordon Adams, a professor at American University and a former defense budget official in the Clinton administration, told the Journal. "We are not likely to be deploying big units in big formations anytime soon, so if you have to make a choice [cutting training] is not a stupid choice."
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