Lance Cpl. Kyle Rowe, a Marine Attack Squadron 513 ordnance technician, signals one of the squadron's AV-8B Harriers in July to approach for an arming procedure on the flightline of Kandahar Airfield, Afghanistan. (Pfc. Sean Dennison / Marine Corps)
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The Marine Corps' head of aviation is downplaying the gloom-and-doom rhetoric that's been used to describe the effect sweeping budget cuts could have on the military if Congress fails to derail sequestration by the Friday deadline.
"Readiness isn't something that falls off a cliff in one day," Lt. Gen. Robert Schmidle Jr., deputy commandant for aviation, said Feb. 20 during an appearance at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. "Readiness degrades gradually. … It's the same way you don't suddenly become ready again because someone throws a lot of money in your pocket."
Schmidle acknowledged that the current fiscal environment has leaders struggling to balance short-term operational needs with long-term investment in research and development. But that dilemma is not without a solution. The Marine Corps successfully struck that balance during the drawdown that followed the first Gulf War, Schmidle said.
This time the budget cuts could be more severe, but in the 1990s, during his tenure at what would become the Marine Corps Warfighting Lab, funding was available, the general recalled. The Special Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force (Experimental) group forged ahead with development of the service's next-generation technologies, even as thousands were being pushed out of uniform.
"My recollection was that we had resources to do a lot of those things," he said, adding that spending cuts will force Marines to become more resourceful, but so long as there is enough money to continue innovating, it won't be a disaster.
Sims can do only so much
The Corps' aviation community has worked to identify how it can maintain preparedness while operating within the confines of shrinking budgets, Schmidle said. Sophisticated new simulators offer comparatively inexpensive, quality training that could free more money for aviation operations and maintenance.
Because the simulators are so advanced, flying time can be spent focused on raw piloting skills rather than learning weapons and sensor systems. That can be done on the ground, the general said.
As development continues for the F-35B Joint Strike Fighter, revisions will be made to training and readiness manuals to incorporate more simulation time, he said. But simulators can't entirely replace flight hours, he stressed. The Marine Corps must continue to put pilots in the air where they can experience the sort of adrenaline spikes that enhance training.
"Bad weather and running out of gas, all those kinds of things … really don't have the same sort of visceral effect on you as they do when you are at 10,000 feet," he said.
Again, Schmidle indicated, it's a matter of finding optimal balance.
"You've got the number of hours you have to fly each month so you are safe and proficient," he said. And "there is a certain number of hours you must fly to maintain your tactical advantage."