Selfridge base loses out on the F-35 for now

Melissa Nann Burke
The Detroit News

Washington — Selfridge Air National Guard Base in Harrison Township was not selected this round to host one of the next two units of F-35A fighter aircraft, the U.S. Air Force announced Thursday.

Selfridge was one of five bases competing nationally to be the second and third Air National Guard locations for storing, maintaining and training on the F-35A, which is made by Lockheed Martin Corp.

The service announced Thursday it would instead convert two F-16 units in Montgomery, Alabama, and Madison, Wisconsin, for the F-35 mission.

Operations related to the A-10 Thunderbolt II aircraft will continue at Selfridge, where the 18 jets support 180 full-time jobs and nearly 450 part-time jobs. Lawmakers said Selfridge still could be a candidate for future conversion to the F-35 mission.

“Today’s announcement is far from the end of the road for Selfridge,” said Republican Rep. Paul Michell, whose district includes Selfridge.

“This process confirmed what we already knew: Selfridge is among the top five bases in the country, and it has world-class support from the surrounding community. This was Selfridge’s centennial year, and I look forward to celebrating many more Selfridge anniversaries.”

The F-35As could begin arriving in 2023 at Dannelly Field Air Guard Station in Montgomery, Alabama, and Truax Air Guard Station in Madison, Wisconsin, according to the Air Force.

“Selecting Truax Field and Dannelly Field will increase Air National Guard F-35A units providing 5th generation airpower around the world,” Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson said in a statement.

“As F-35As arrive at these locations, we will use the existing aircraft at these fields to replace the aging F-16s at other Air National Guard units.”

The service said the Alabama and Wisconsin locations remain preferred alternatives until Wilson makes the final basing decisions after a required environmental analysis is complete.

The Air Force said that Selfridge and the other two finalists — Gowen Field Air National Guard Base in Idaho and Jacksonville Air Guard Station in Florida — were “reasonable alternatives” but not preferred.

Three active-duty bases and one Air National Guard location had previously been named to host the F-35A, including the Burlington Air National Guard in Vermont, which is expected to get its first F-35As in fall 2019, the service said last year.

U.S. Sen. Gary Peters, a Democrat serving on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said Selfridge remains a “strong contender” for future conversion to the F-35 platform.

“The men and women of the 127th Wing have gone over and beyond in demonstrating their skill and utility on the battlefield, earning recognition as the top National Guard flying unit in the nation,” Peters said in a statement.

“Today’s decision marks the Air Force’s continued commitment to the A-10 and Selfridge, which will continue hosting this extremely important platform. ... I will continue working to ensure the base maintains a fighter mission for years to come.”

The selection of Selfridge would have been a lifeline for the base and Macomb County, both of which could be affected by a potential move by the Air Force to ground three squadrons of the A-10 Thunderbolt II as their wings run out of service life.

“Although we are disappointed Selfridge was not selected to house the F-35 fighter jet, we are confident our hometown air base will be part of future fighter missions,” Macomb County Executive Mark A. Hackel said in a statement.

“It is a source of pride that Selfridge was one of only five bases in the country to be considered for such a deployment, and the tremendous amount of community engagement generated from this campaign has provided us with a core group of partners willing to support the base’s next 100 years of service.”

In July, a site-survey team of Air Force officials visited Selfridge, which previously hosted F-16s.

In addition to the on-the-ground survey, the evaluation team assessed an environmental-impact study, logistics, cost estimates, as well as potential impacts to existing missions, infrastructure and manpower, according to the Air Force.

The cost of modifying facilities at Selfridge to be compatible with the F-35A mission was estimated by the 127th Wing of the Michigan Air National Guard to be roughly $11.8 million, with little increased personnel costs. Selfridge would have the capacity to operate up to 24 F-35s.

State and federal lawmakers in Michigan, as well as local leaders, had lobbied hard for the Air Force to select Selfridge.

They said the base was the only one under consideration that could house each of the planned F-35As in environmentally controlled hangars. Michigan also hosts the largest inland airspace and range complex east of the Mississippi River that would allow for training for close air-support tactics and for joint training with allies such as Canada.

“There is no question that Selfridge Air National Guard Base is well positioned for a future F-35 mission,” Sen. Debbie Stabenow said in a statement. “As Michigan’s senior senator, I will continue to advocate for Selfridge’s fighter mission.”

The Air Force this year said that, despite earlier plans to divest the fleet, it will maintain the bulk of its A-10s.

Commonly known as the Warthog, the low- and slow-flying A-10s are designed for close-air support — a capability prized by military commanders in the fight against the Islamic State militant group in Iraq and Syria.

Then-Defense Secretary Ash Carter announced last year that the service would push back retiring the A-10s until 2022, replacing them with F-35 Joint Strike Fighters on a squadron-by-squadron basis.

Retirement was delayed in part because of the high demand for the battle-tested A-10s in the Middle East.

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