The newly appointed leader of Ellsworth Air Force Base said Friday that federal cutbacks mean the base's bomber fleet will be less ready to respond to "crises around the globe" for the next six months.
Col. Kevin Kennedy, who took the reins as commander of the 28th Bomb Wing last week, said the base's local B-1 bombers will be grounded until Oct. 1. Bombers in combat will continue to fly and the base will also continue piloting remote aircraft, commonly known as drones, in the skies of Afghanistan.
Kennedy said the bombers were now in a state of "tiered readiness".
"It's not a state the U.S. Air Force usually operates in," he said in a press conference. "The reason we don't operate in that state is because it will take up to days, weeks, or depending on how long, months, to get ready to prepare for any kind of contingency."
Asked what kind of "contingency" the Air Force might need to respond to, Kennedy pointed to the U.S. military's operation in Libya in 2011. In March of that year, two B-1 bombers flew from Ellsworth to strike targets in Libya before returning to the base.
The cuts are part of a budget deal between Democrats and Republicans, known as sequestration, that took effect in March. As a result, the military has lost 7.9 percent of its budget for the rest of the fiscal year, which ends at the end of September.
Ellsworth is only one of many military bases affected across the country. The Air Force is cutting 45,000 hours of training time and is grounding about a third of its active-duty combat planes. Crews and planes in combat, or about to be deployed to places like Afghanistan, will not be affected.
Ellsworth's sister base, Dyess AFB in Texas, will continue to fly its bomber fleet. Dyess is the only other base in the country that hosts B-1 bombers and the two bases take turns deploying their bombers to combat zones. Right now, Ellsworth bombers are deployed, but they will soon return home and be replaced by Dyess's bombers.
Although sequestration will cut $487 billion out of the military's budget over the next decade, Kennedy said he expects Ellsworth to continue flying after October when the new fiscal year begins.
However, he again stressed that even six months would hurt the base's crews would lose "currency" with the bombers every day they couldn't train.
"Eventually we will have over half of our crew force, by Oct. 1, will be unqualified in the airplane and will have to go through an official qualification program to get them back on step," he said.
Kennedy said they would try to mitigate that as much as possible, maximizing the base's two flight simulators.
"However, that doesn't get us all the way home with things such as critical phases of flight, takeoffs, landings, air refuelings things like that, things that you need the actual repetition in the aircraft to make sure you have the proper safety practice," he said.