Depleted Air Force Asks
Pentagon For Time To Recover
By Correspondent Patty Davis

WASHINGTON (CNN) - Senior Air Force leaders are pressing the Pentagon brass for an unprecedented "time out," or in military terms a "reconstitution," to allow heavily used squadrons to recuperate from the stress -- both human and mechanical -- of carrying the bulk of the load of NATO's Operation Allied Force, CNN learned Thursday.
The Air Force has played an increasingly important role in conflict after conflict and that branch of the U.S. military is now feeling the pinch.
"What is showing is the strain," said retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Tom McInerney. "We've put the horse, if you will, back in the barn still wet. And now the Air Force must reconstitute."
Flew majority of 36,000 sorties against Serbs
Air Force planes and personnel worked up that sweat during the 2 1/2 month intensive bombing campaign against Yugoslavia. The United States contributed 731 aircraft and flew the majority of the 36,000 sorties from March 24 to June 20.
At the same time, the Air Force was carrying out the ongoing enforcement of "no-fly" zones in both northern and southern Iraq and in Bosnia.
Doing more with less resources
The problem is that while the Air Force is 40 percent smaller than a decade ago it has up to four times as many obligations worldwide, according to senior Defense Department officials.
Defense Secretary William Cohen warned a Senate panel that all the services are feeling the crunch.
"That's the real danger that we face -- that we've got to find a way to either increase the size of our forces or decrease the number of our missions," Cohen testified on May 11.
Particularly hard hit are the Air Force's AWACS, U-2s and other intelligence-gathering planes.
The pace, said Air Force officials, has "pilots leaving in droves", as well as jet mechanics and others. But the pace is not the only factor.
"We have a booming economy. And we have very high pace of operations in the military today," noted Stephen Aubin of the Air Force Association. "So that combination has been forcing people to look at their options, and a lot of people say, 'Hey I want to be home with my family more.'"
The administration and Congress are trying to address the problem with proposals to increase pay and bonuses.
The Air Force -- now short more than 1,400 pilots -- said that while it's not yet in a crisis, it's headed there soon if something doesn't give.