SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Now to the Pentagon, where officials say the automatic budget cuts could leave the military unprepared for the most challenging combat missions. Here's how Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel recently put it:
SECRETARY CHUCK HAGEL: The cuts will fall heavily on maintenance and training, which further erodes the readiness of the force and will be costly to regain in the future. As the service chiefs have said, we are consuming our readiness.
SIMON: The Air Force says it's in a special bind. Cuts in flying hours mean that pilots can't do the one thing they need to practice most - flying. NPR's Larry Abramson reports.
LARRY ABRAMSON, BYLINE: At Seymour Johnson Air Force Base in North Carolina, F-15 fighter jets roll down the flight line and launch into a cloudy sky.
(SOUNDBITE OF JETS TAKING OFF)
ABRAMSON: Training flights are part of the daily routine at this base, which is home to the Fourth Fighter Wing of the Air Combat Command. The wing is made up of four squadrons of fighters that practice and practice so they can be ready to deploy anywhere in the world anytime. But the skies are a little quieter now because the leadership has been told to save money.
LIEUTENANT COLONEL JAMES HOWARD: We were told to cut our flying budget roughly in half.
ABRAMSON: Lieutenant Colonel James Howard says because of that order he had to ground the 336th Fighter Squadron so that other units on this base could keep flying. The tricky thing for Colonel Howard is that the longer his pilots remain idle, the longer it will take them to get ready to fly again. Fighter pilots must fly and drill their skills on a regular basis, from dogfighting to helping ground troops under fire. Otherwise, they lose their certification.
HOWARD: All those skills are extremely perishable. And without getting the repeated training that we require normally, for most pilots it's eight to nine sorties per month that we require to maintain our readiness status.
ABRAMSON: Some Pentagon budget hawks say these complaints are just part of the military's propaganda effort to avoid budget cuts. They say the military is hoping to win sympathy by deliberately cancelling high-profile programs like appearances by the Blue Angels and Fleet Week in New York. The cancellations make it easier for Pentagon backers like Republican Senator John McCain to argue that the military should be protected from these automatic cuts. On "Meet the Press" recently, McCain said Congress should do for the military what it did for the Federal Aviation Administration after travelers complained about flight delays caused by budget cuts.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "MEET THE PRESS")
SENATOR JOHN MCCAIN: I'm for giving the FAA flexibility. But I also want to give the military flexibility. And I don't want the sequestration cuts to be as steep as they are on national defense.
ABRAMSON: The problem right now is that Washington still looks at sequestration as a temporary problem. Todd Harrison of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments says Congress and military are banking on the chance that next year the budget will be back to normal.
TODD HARRISON: You may be willing to make a strategic choice and say I will accept a lower level of readiness for some period of time just so that I have the option of turning back on that readiness quickly and having all of these aircraft and these pilots ready to go.
ABRAMSON: Better to ground a few pilots now hoping you won't have to make permanent cuts like having fewer pilots or fewer planes. The Pentagon soon hopes to get limited relief by asking Congress for permission to shift money around in order to protect top priorities like flying time. But the long-term solution is a budget deal which is not even visible on the horizon. Larry Abramson, NPR News, Washington.