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400 airmen from Nellis, Creech join Air Force drawdown effort

More than 400 airmen from Nellis and Creech Air Force bases have taken voluntary separations to help meet the Pentagon’s downsizing goals for a leaner and more efficient military as U.S. combat operations in Afghanistan end this year, the Nellis base commander said Tuesday.

Col. Barry Cornish said those 400 airmen and as many as 1,000 who are expected to leave the Air Force this year could offer their technical skills to the local job market, particularly in the field of unmanned aerial vehicle operations. The Federal Aviation Administration is opening Nevada’s skies for testing UAVs for civilian use.

“Every city is going to be competing for these talented airmen,” Cornish told the Review-Journal.

The civilian UAV market in Southern Nevada has prospects for thousands of jobs in Southern Nevada, he said.

Cornish will address a breakfast gathering of the Las Vegas Global Economic Alliance at the Four Seasons Hotel on Thursday, talking about the impact of force reductions that will put technically trained airmen in the hunt for civilian jobs.

Cornish is commander of the 99th Air Base Wing at Nellis, a position that is known as the “mayor of Nellis” among Las Vegas Valley civic leaders.

“We anticipate we’ll have a smaller Air Force in the future, and we only want an Air Force that’s big enough for us to maintain a high state of readiness,” he said.

That means the Air Force will reduce its ranks by 25,000 airmen worldwide during the next five years.

“We’re taking most of those cuts early,” Cornish said. “We expect a reduction in force of about 20,500 over the next 12 to 18 months.”

AIR FORCE CUTS

Last week, Air Force budget director Maj. Gen. Jim Martin said Congress will consider approving a top-line budget of $109.3 billion for the 2015 fiscal year to support 483,000 personnel and priority projects including purchasing F-35A Lightning II fighter jets, four of which are at Nellis for test and evaluation. By 2020, Nellis expects to be a home base for 36 joint strike fighters.

While F-35 basing is expected to bring support personnel to Nellis, manpower cuts will occur across the 172 specialty jobs affected by the drawdown.

“It’s important to note that we are trying to take these reductions through both voluntary and involuntary means,” Cornish said. “We’re offering early separation measures, bonuses, early retirement availability to those who are eligible to take these cuts through voluntary means first. Then, if we have to, through involuntary means.”

Benefits offered to those who voluntarily separate will depend on what program someone joined the Air Force, time of service and grade. Almost every case will be different.

Last year, Nellis on the Las Vegas Valley’s north end and Creech at Indian Springs, 45 miles northwest of the valley, combined to employ 8,425 in the military and 4,065 civilians for an annual payroll of more than $694 million. On any day, 1,000 temporary duty personnel work on the bases or at the sprawling Nevada Test and Training Range.

Historically this translates to a $5.1 billion infusion directly and indirectly into the local economy.

Cornish said he expects the number of voluntary separations to increase this year, adding to the typical number of 800 to 1,000 airmen who separate or retire annually at Nellis. Nearly 1,100 local airmen left the Air Force last year.

“Here you have a large group of very technically skilled, competent, disciplined (personnel) in our workforce that is now drawing down simultaneous to a resurgence in the Las Vegas metropolitan area of diversifying the economy into a technology base,” he said.

Cornish said it is “somewhat serendipitous that you have this workforce transitioning into the civilian workforce during a time in which Las Vegas businesses are trying to develop a workforce to move into these technical skill sets.”

“It could be a win-win both for the military installations that are drawing down and those economies that are looking to absorb this very skilled workforce,” he said.

Late last year, Congress and the White House agreed to a spending cap of about $496 billion for the military in fiscal year 2015. Deeper reductions in 2016 under the sequestration law and more defense spending cuts in years to follow loom on the horizon.

The Air Force still is smarting from the sting of last year’s automatic budget cuts that caused furloughs for civilian workers and historic reductions in flight hours that canceled July’s Red Flag air combat exercise and the next graduate-level Weapons School for pilots.

NELLIS AIR SHOW TO RETURN

The unprecedented move then in the Air Force’s 66-year history to resort to a “tiered readiness” strategy also stopped the Thunderbirds midstream in its schedule, prompting cancellation of the Aviation Nation air show at Nellis and putting a $19 million dent in the local tourism industry.

This year the Air Force has approved the free Aviation Nation open house for Nov. 8 and 9 for spectators “to see the capstone event for the Thunderbird season, the F-22 demonstration and some other highlights. It’s a great opportunity for us to share what we do with the public,” Cornish said.

While Creech is a hub for remotely piloted aircraft operations for Predator and Reaper drones, Nellis is the nation’s foremost base for air combat training as well as a test-and-evaluation site for F-35 Lightning II joint strike fighter jets and stealthy F-22 Raptors.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel’s plan will eliminate the Air Force’s fleet of A-10 Thunderbolt attack jets but sustain money for producing F-35s to replace the A-10s and other aging fighter jets.

Hagel’s plan also addressed military pay and compensation. The proposed budget calls for a one-year salary freeze for general and flag officers while basic pay for personnel would increase by 1 percent.

The Pentagon’s 2015 budget would retard tax-free housing allowances and cut into the the $1.4 billion subsidy for commissaries. That would in turn increase grocery bills for military personnel and retirees who shop at commissaries.

The Pentagon also plans to reduce the Army to 490,000 troops, down from a peak of 570,000 after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. The Defense Department’s forecast calls for reducing the Army over the next few years to between 440,000 and 450,000 soldiers, the lowest level since 1940.

The Guard and Reserves would face smaller reductions. The Nevada National Guard includes more than 3,200 soldiers and 1,150 airmen. Their combined payroll in 2012 was more than $105 million.

Contact reporter Keith Rogers at krogers@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0308. Follow him on Twitter @KeithRogers2.

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