By Andrea Shalal
NELLIS AIR FORCE BASE, Nev. (Reuters) - The Pentagon's fiscal 2017 budget will propose a $1 billion boost in spending on advanced training for the U.S. Air Force over the next five years, U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter said on Thursday.
Carter said the extra funding would pay for at least 34 major air combat training exercises at Nellis Air Force Base and other ranges, helping prepare U.S. forces for a variety of missions from counterinsurgency operations to conflicts with technologically advanced enemies.
He said the Air Force would also invest in improving the infrastructure and resources at Nellis and other training ranges, and in hiring more mechanics.
"This is a critical place. It's going to stay a critical place, and it's going to get budgetary priority. The key is readiness," Carter said.
The Pentagon chief lauded the importance of the work done at the Nevada base, which kicked off a large-scale air combat exercise called Red Flag on Jan. 25 that runs through Feb. 12.
No other U.S. training range offered the opportunity to integrate satellite, cyber, aircraft and ground assets at once, preparing U.S. pilots ready to fight in future wars, he said.
Carter toured the base after previewing the Pentagon's $582.7 billion budget for 2017 earlier this week. The budget plan shifts funding to focus more on potential threats from near-peer competitors such as Russia and China.
"We have to be ready for it all," Carter told reporters.
Lieutenant Colonel Kevin Gordon told reporters the current Red Flag exercise, one of four planned this year, included more than 2,400 personnel from the United States, Australia and Britain, and 120 aircraft.
Three weeks of complex and challenging exercises were meant to create the "muscle memory" that would guide pilots if they had to go to war, helping them train for challenges such as the loss of GPS navigational signals and cyber attacks, he said.
The exercise also tests the ability of mechanics to repair and service aircraft far from their home bases, Gordon said.
It costs about $35 million each year to carry out four Red Flag exercises, he said.
(Reporting by Andrea Shalal; Editing by Paul Tait)