By JULIAN E. BARNES and DAMIAN PALETTA
WASHINGTON—The Air Force said Monday that it resumed training flights for fighter-plane and bomber squadrons that have been idled since April due to spending cuts.
Still, officials said it would be up to three months before the crews were combat-ready—and in an odd twist of the across-the-board government spending cuts known as the sequester, by the time the 1,500 pilots and weapons officers are certified for full combat operation, the Air Force might have to ground them once more.
The Air Force training flights were allowed to resume after Congress last week approved budget reprogramming requests that shifted money to training and war efforts from modernization and procurement.
Officials have complained that militarywide cuts have caused an erosion of combat power and reduced readiness for battle. As a result of the Air Force stand-down, about 25% of combat pilots aren’t certified for aerial combat, dropping bombs or even landing their planes. Similarly, the Army has seven brigades, roughly a fifth of its combat forces, that are no longer at the top level of readiness because of canceled training.
Air Force officials said training cutbacks have hurt their ability to conduct unplanned operations in Syria or elsewhere. “We would be very challenged to do a no-fly zone,” said Lt. Gen. Burton Field, the Air Force’s deputy chief of staff for operations and plans.
The Army, meanwhile, requested to reprogram funding that would have been used for training to costs tied to the war in Afghanistan. Cutbacks in training will remain in place until the end of the fiscal year, officials said.
Some experts countered that the training cuts are unlikely to have broad consequences. Gordon Adams, a professor at American University and a former defense budget official in the Clinton administration, said cutting training is a standard way to deal with a short-term budget shortfall. Because Army units are coming off a decade of war, they are combat-hardened and proficient.
“If you needed them in a massive call-up, you have lots of units that are highly ready,” Mr. Adams said. “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.”
The Air Force budget reprogramming is sending back into the sky pilots in idled combat squadrons in the U.S., Europe and the Pacific. Flights also will resume for the Air Force Thunderbirds, the demonstration squadron that performs at air shows.
The reprogramming offers only a temporary fix, lasting through Sept. 30, the end of the fiscal year. Without a long-term solution, the musical chairs of spending reductions and training cuts will start over in October, defense officials said.
But Air Force officials said it would take until September to get pilots back to combat proficiency. Pilots will have to train with instructors before they are recertified.
“It’s just like exercise. If you haven’t gone to the gym in a long time and you work out hard you feel sick and wobbly,” said Lt. Gen. Field. “It’s the same concept in a fighter plane.”
Half of the sequester’s cuts fall on the Pentagon, representing about $30 billion in spending reductions that must be completed between March 1 and Sept. 30. If the across-the-board cuts aren’t repealed, the military faces a further $55 billion in annual cuts from 2014 until 2021.
Obama administration officials warned the spending cuts would be devastating, but the impact so far has been uneven across the government. Programs have been curtailed for low-income and elderly Americans, including nutrition and housing assistance, but other feared cuts—such as furloughs for air-traffic controllers and meat inspectors—were averted because Congress intervened.
The reprogramming approved by Congress has given further flexibility to parts of the military, but officials said the impact on combat readiness is still being felt.
The Army has seven brigade combat teams—about 24,500 soldiers—that are no longer at the highest level of readiness because their trips to national training centers were canceled due to cost-cutting. Ordinarily, Army officials would refuse to deploy a unit not at a top level of readiness, officials said.
Officials said other spending reductions must be found next year—possibly including shrinking the size of the military—because they cannot continue to curtail training.
Making training a priority is deeply etched in military culture. Army officials point to the lessons learned in the wake of Task Force Smith, the poorly trained Army unit that sustained heavy casualties in 1950, at the outbreak of the Korean War.
“There would be great hesitancy to deploy a combat unit that has not gone through collective training—otherwise we would create something like a Task Force Smith,” an Army official said.
The military has felt other effects as the sequester kicked in and civilian employees have been furloughed.
The Army has 242,000 unfilled maintenance orders—for broken toilets, smashed windows and other small repairs—that have gone unfixed as a short term cost savings.
The Army has also deferred maintenance on half of its equipment. As a result, troops in Afghanistan will have to use equipment longer, for 36 months before it is overhauled, rather than 27 months previously.
Some defense analysts believe the Pentagon has bungled the cutbacks, and should have moved sooner to take money from procurement and weapons programs.
“My complaint is that the military services are picking all the wrong places to do these cuts,” said Winslow Wheeler, a defense analyst at the liberal-leaning Project on Government Oversight. “They are clearly picking the protection of hardware over the protection of readiness.”