Exclusive: Air Force Grounds Fighter Jets as Shutdown Takes Hold

Entire fighter squadrons are grounded. The Defense Department’s Middle East specialists are barred from the Pentagon. Thousands of the Intelligence Community’s top geeks are at home playing Minecraft. The shutdown of the United States government is starting to have very real impacts on the American defense and intelligence infrastructure. Director of National Intelligence Jim Clapper ...

U.S. Air Force
U.S. Air Force
U.S. Air Force

Entire fighter squadrons are grounded. The Defense Department's Middle East specialists are barred from the Pentagon. Thousands of the Intelligence Community's top geeks are at home playing Minecraft. The shutdown of the United States government is starting to have very real impacts on the American defense and intelligence infrastructure. Director of National Intelligence Jim Clapper even calls it a "dream scenario" for other countries to recruit spies who ordinarily work for the federal government -- when that government is actually open. There's even a poor Air Force reservist who has been deemed "nonessential" at all three jobs he holds.

The slightly good news? Lawmakers might -- might -- do something about this today. "I hope issues of partisan politics can be set aside and we can all come together and pass, right now by the end of the day, a continuing resolution to fully fund the Department of Defense and intelligence community," said Sen. Ted Cruz during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing where Clapper appeared this morning. Cruz is at the heart of the debate over Obamacare that has led to the government shutdown.

In addition to calling the shutdown a foreign intelligence fantasy, Clapper told senators during today's hearing that he will recommend to President Barack Obama that he sign a continuing resolution funding the Pentagon's and Intelligence Community's civilian workers despite the shutdown.

Entire fighter squadrons are grounded. The Defense Department’s Middle East specialists are barred from the Pentagon. Thousands of the Intelligence Community’s top geeks are at home playing Minecraft. The shutdown of the United States government is starting to have very real impacts on the American defense and intelligence infrastructure. Director of National Intelligence Jim Clapper even calls it a "dream scenario" for other countries to recruit spies who ordinarily work for the federal government — when that government is actually open. There’s even a poor Air Force reservist who has been deemed "nonessential" at all three jobs he holds.

The slightly good news? Lawmakers might — might — do something about this today. "I hope issues of partisan politics can be set aside and we can all come together and pass, right now by the end of the day, a continuing resolution to fully fund the Department of Defense and intelligence community," said Sen. Ted Cruz during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing where Clapper appeared this morning. Cruz is at the heart of the debate over Obamacare that has led to the government shutdown.

In addition to calling the shutdown a foreign intelligence fantasy, Clapper told senators during today’s hearing that he will recommend to President Barack Obama that he sign a continuing resolution funding the Pentagon’s and Intelligence Community’s civilian workers despite the shutdown.

Clapper also said he is "very concerned about the jeopardy to the country" and that he cannot "guarantee" the safety of the United States due to the shutdown.

The National Security Agency (NSA), one of the 16 government agencies that make up the U.S. Intelligence Community, has furloughed "over 960 Ph.D.s, over 4,000 computer scientists, over a thousand mathematicians," NSA chief Gen. Keith Alexander told the committee. "Our nation needs people like this."

It looks like the shutdown will also prevent the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board from conducting its public hearing into the NSA’s domestic surveillance on Oct. 4. The board just announced that it is rescheduling that hearing because government witnesses are unable to appear due to the shutdown.

At the Pentagon, the staff that helps Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and other top officials formulate U.S. military policy toward nations like Egypt, Syria, Iran, and Israel have discovered they are not essential. "There have been personnel throughout policy furloughed, but not all," Defense Department spokeswoman Cmdr. Amy Derrick-Frost told FP in an email. "This includes the Middle East desk. I don’t have specific names or numbers."

The furloughs are also having impacts at the military units tasked with preparing for and fighting the nation’s wars.

U.S. Strategic Command, the organization in charge of America’s nuclear and cyber arsenal, will see 85 percent of the 2,000 civilians that make up most of its headquarters staff furloughed. Air Force Special Operations Command has also furloughed 1,200 or its 1,560 civilian employees.

Even though troops are officially exempt from furloughs, some are seeing their missions taken away.

The Air Force’s Air Combat Command (ACC) — home to the service’s fighter jets, B-1 bombers, and most of its drones and spy planes — has grounded squadrons that are not set to deploy abroad after January.

"If you’re on to the hook to deploy before January, we’re saying go ahead and train," ACC spokesman Lt. Col. Tadd Sholtis told FP. However, if a unit is waiting until after that, its aircraft will remain on the ground. A striking example of this can be found at Mountain Home Air Force Base in Idaho. None of the 366th Fighter Wing’s squadrons of F-15E Strike Eagles are slated to deploy before January. This means the only fighters based at Mountain Home flying this fall are the F-15SGs of the Singaporean Air Force that are permanently stationed there. Interestingly, German and Canadian air force jets are also flying out of the Idaho base on training deployments of their own.

In addition to squadrons set to deploy, ACC squadrons that train F-22 Raptor, MC-12 Liberty, and the command’s various drone crews will remain airborne. A limited number of "urgent" tests flights are also being conducted. Of ACC’s 10,000 civilians, 7,500 are at home. Given the fact that the command is still providing fighters, bombers, and spy planes around the globe, it may have to find a way to bring some of these people back to work if the shutdown continues for too long.

"There continues to be a high demand for combat air power during the shutdown, and unfortunately we have fewer people supporting only moderately reduced operations," said Sholtis. "Should the current shutdown persist, we may need to bring additional personnel back to work in order to continue to support operational requirements."

Meanwhile, the very real impact of the shutdown is being felt by U.S. Air Force Reserve Maj. Eric Brine.

Brine normally works on the Air Force staff as a civilian general-service employee. But for part of this year, he is on loan to Virginia Democratic Sen. Tim Kaine’s office as a presidential management fellow. Meanwhile, as a member of the Air Force Reserve, he contributes about two months out of the year working at the Pentagon’s public affairs shop. Brine just got done finding out he’s "nonessential" in all three jobs.

It’s tough, said the father of four, "to be nonessential, essentially everywhere I work," he told FP‘s Situation Report this morning. Yesterday, he first reported to the Air Force at the Pentagon to fill out paperwork to enter furlough status. Then he went to Capitol Hill to be formally furloughed from that job. (Because of the government shutdown, all three of Kaine’s advisors on national security are furloughed. That’s a tough one — Kaine serves on both the Senate Armed Services and the Senate Foreign Relations committees.)

Then Brine headed back to the Pentagon yesterday, only to be told that his orders to report as a reservist at the public affairs shop had also been canceled, since Reservists are also not considered essential. In fact, Brine, a major in the reserves, was expecting to be promoted this week at the Pentagon while on duty — by Kaine.

"I spent a very full day getting temporarily canned all over town," Brine told Situation Report. "So now the joke is that I got the furlough hat trick. I’ve got a bunch of jobs and no income. So much for hard work paying off."

John Reed is a national security reporter for Foreign Policy. He comes to FP after editing Military.com’s publication Defense Tech and working as the associate editor of DoDBuzz. Between 2007 and 2010, he covered major trends in military aviation and the defense industry around the world for Defense News and Inside the Air Force. Before moving to Washington in August 2007, Reed worked in corporate sales and business development for a Swedish IT firm, The Meltwater Group in Mountain View CA, and Philadelphia, PA. Prior to that, he worked as a reporter at the Tracy Press and the Scotts Valley Press-Banner newspapers in California. His first story as a professional reporter involved chasing escaped emus around California’s central valley with Mexican cowboys armed with lassos and local police armed with shotguns. Luckily for the giant birds, the cowboys caught them first and the emus were ok. A New England native, Reed graduated from the University of New Hampshire with a dual degree in international affairs and history.

Gordon Lubold is a national security reporter for Foreign Policy. He is also the author of FP's Situation Report, an e-mailed newsletter that is blasted out to more than 70,000 national security and foreign affairs subscribers each morning that includes the top nat-sec news, breaking news, tidbits, nuggets and what he likes to call "candy." Before arriving at FP, he was a senior advisor at the United States Institute of Peace in Washington, where he wrote on national security and foreign policy. Prior to his arrival at USIP, he was a defense reporter for Politico, where he launched the popular Morning Defense early morning blog and tip-sheet. Prior to that, he was the Pentagon and national security correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor, and before that he was the Pentagon correspondent for the Army Times chain of newspapers. He has covered conflict in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and other countries in South Asia, and has reported on military matters in sub-Saharan Africa, East Asia and Latin America as well as at American military bases across the country. He has spoken frequently on the sometimes-contentious relationship between the military and the media as a guest on numerous panels. He also appears on radio and television, including on CNN, public radio's Diane Rehm and To the Point, and C-SPAN's Washington Journal. He lives in Alexandria with his wife and two children. Twitter: @glubold

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