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A top Air Force commander warned yesterday that massive cuts to the nation’s defense installations could mean airmen are sent into battle without being adequately prepared.

“ When the next major conflict starts, we will send our joint force to fight regardless of how ready they are,” Air Force Chief of Staff Mark Welsh III said at a hearing of the House Armed Services Committee. “And they will go and they will fight and they will die in greater numbers than they have to. We owe them better than that.”

Welsh and other military leaders were in their second day of testimony before Congress about the impact of mandatory budget cuts over the next decade, set to begin March 1. The first installment for defense: $46 billion in cuts spread over the next seven months.

Welsh said the Air Force’s piece of the pie amounted to $12.4 billion in cuts that would affect “ every account, every program.” Up to 180,000 civilian airmen would see 22 days of furlough, he said, resulting in a loss of 31.5 million lost hours of productivity.

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