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Kansas military leaders are putting cost-saving measures in place in face of spending cuts

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Friday, March 8, 2013, at 9:34 p.m.

Military commanders across the country are taking steps to mitigate cuts in federal defense spending, including those at McConnell Air Force Base and Fort Riley in Kansas.

With the Pentagon expected to be hit by a large proportion of the $85 billion in automatic spending cuts from this year’s federal budget of $3.5 trillion, McConnell and Fort Riley are doing such things as changing training schedules and putting civilian employees on furlough.

Whether all of those steps will play out depends on whether Congress and the White House can agree to replace a 10-year sequestration with a long-term deficit plan. The reason the cuts hit particularly hard this year is because the government is trying to get 12 months’ worth of cuts crammed into the remaining seven months of this fiscal year.

The military is bracing for the worst.

At Wichita’s McConnell AFB, nearly 850 civilian employees would be required to take 22 furlough days from late April until near the end of September. Fort Riley would see its 2,700 civilian employees draw the same unpaid time off, resulting in what amounts to a 20 percent pay cut.

McConnell, which is the world’s largest tanker refueling base, will reduce its training flying hours by as much as 18 percent, which will put it at about 500 hours per month.

“These impacts will directly affect operational and training missions,” Col. Ricky Rupp, commander of the 22nd Air Refueling Wing, said in an e-mail. “The result will be reduced training opportunities and lower readiness.”

To help make up for the loss of training hours in the air, Rupp said the base will train in simulators.

“However, there is still limited capacity, and not all training requirements can be accomplished in the simulator.”

The loss of civilian hours will shift a burden onto the military work force.

“We are working through the specific effects,” Rupp added in his e-mail. “Delays in non-emergency work orders and administrative actions are likely. However, we will protect activities directly related to life, safety and security.”

He noted that the furloughs will also have a negative impact on the morale of the civilian employees.

“This is a difficult time four our civilian airmen,” Rupp wrote.

Besides the 22nd, McConnell’s furloughed civilian employees would come from the reserve’s 931st Air Refueling Group and the Kansas Air National Guard’s 184th Intelligence Wing.

Col. Mark Larson, commander of the 931st, said he was concerned about how the sequestration would affect his civilian employees as well as being able to keep employees.

“People take these types of jobs because they consider them to be steady and reliable,” Larson said. “A long-term furlough will most likely cause some individuals to consider leaving for another line of work.”

McConnell has more than 3,000 airmen plus more than 3,200 military family members. The base’s economic impact on the Wichita area for 2012 was $619.1 million.

At Fort Riley, Brig. Gen. Donald MacWillie held a briefing Friday at the 1st Infantry Division headquarters. Fort Bliss in El Paso, Texas, held a similar news conference Friday at the city’s chamber of commerce office.

“I have very little flexibility remaining. So if there’s another big shoe that falls, then we’ll probably have another gathering like this,” MacWillie said. “The decisions that will be made, clearly we’ve got contingencies that we’ve thought through, but unknown is the future. But we are postured to be able to accept that.”

MacWillie said Friday’s discussion was his own effort to inform the public and surrounding communities about the cuts and not part of a coordinated Army effort.

“Why not step out and tell everybody, ‘Here are my cards and they’re facing outward’?” MacWillie said. “You can ask me a question. You may not like my answers, but I have an obligation as a leader to look you in the eye and tell you which direction I’m going in, and we can have a dialogue about it.

“The fact that other posts are doing it may be that we’ve learned that it’s good to come out and talk to people.”

Fort Riley is home to nearly 18,000 soldiers plus countless families and retirees. MacWillie said it was unclear just how the spending cuts would be felt in the nearby communities but that they would be felt as paychecks are trimmed.

.MacWillie said the post was also looking at all civilian contracts and seeing where savings can be found. He said one example of cost-saving would be to use military vehicles around the post instead of paying for a van fleet, especially because the entire division – and its vehicles – is back from deployments.

He said 43 contract employees who were hired last April to backfill division staff that was deployed to Afghanistan will be let go early, as the uniformed staff is slated to return next week. Another three contracted employees at the brigade level were also released early.

Contributing: The Associated Press.

Reach Rick Plumlee at 316-268-6660 or rplumlee@wichitaeagle.com.

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