Michigan senators demand answers as Selfridge loses bid for F-35 training center

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The U.S. Air Force has selected a site in Arkansas over Selfridge Air National Guard Base in Harrison Township and three other candidates for its planned international F-35 training center.

Fort Smith Regional Airport tentatively has been chosen to house up to 36 F-35s at the base while the service trains international student pilots and support personnel from Singapore, Poland, Finland and Switzerland. Those nations would be purchasing the aircraft from the U.S. military.

Members of the Michigan National Guard brief officials from the Republic of Singapore Air Force prior to boarding Eurocopter UH-72 Lakota helicopters for a "birds-eye view" of Selfridge Air National Guard Base and training ranges in Michigan in late March 2021. Selfridge lost its bid to host an F-35 Foreign Military Sales training center.

The decision set off a storm of criticism Thursday from Michigan's two U.S. senators and a key local official. The Air Force said it expects to make a final decision in spring 2023, adding that Selfridge is the backup site if an environmental impact analysis finds the Arkansas site is unsuitable.

“We are fully committed to the F-35 as the cornerstone of the U.S. Air Force’s fighter fleet and look forward to building stronger relationships with nations who want to work by our side," Acting Air Force Secretary John Roth said in a statement. 

Other bases in the running to host the foreign military sales training center included Buckley Air Force Base in Colorado, Hulman Field in Indiana and Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland in Texas.

The Michigan congressional delegation and Macomb County elected officials have been seeking new aircraft deployments at Selfridge in a bid to ensure its long-term future. The Air Force has repeatedly tried to retire some of the A-10 Warthog aircraft that are a backbone of the base's mission, but lawmakers have insisted they continue to fly. 

In a blistering statement, Sen. Gary Peters, D-Bloomfield Township, slammed the choice.

“There are many important, unanswered questions about how and why the Air Force made this decision. I have repeatedly pressed for a decision based on fairness and merits, and I’m demanding answers and full transparency from the Air Force and Biden Administration about why Selfridge Air National Guard Base was not chosen," Peters said.

"There is no question that Selfridge stood out as the clear choice to host a new training mission because of its facilities, capabilities and assets for our national security, and I question the conclusion that the Air Force reached."

If Selfridge had been chosen, the first contingent would have involved about 150 families from Singapore moving to Michigan and living in the community, with pilots rotating out for training, according to Phillip Ulmer, spokesman for the 127th Wing at Selfridge.

A delegation from the Singapore Air Force visited Selfridge in late March to tour the base, Ulmer said, and met with Michigan Adjutant General Maj. Gen. Paul Rogers and Air National Guard Commander Brig. Gen. Bryan Teff, as well as local officials. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer addressed the group by Zoom, he said.

Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Lansing, said she "strongly disagrees" with the decision and said she would demand answers about how it was made. 

"Selfridge has the personnel, the airspace and the facilities, and was the most cost-effective choice to host these F-35 training missions," she said in a statement. "Selfridge was already evaluated by the Air Force as a location that could support the F-35 in a previous basing. Bottom line — this decision simply does not add up."

U.S. Rep. Lisa McClain, R-Bruce Township, said, after hearing the news Thursday, she requested a meeting with the acting secretary of the Air Force "to discuss alternate programs for Selfridge."

“Selfridge Air National Guard Base was clearly the best option to house the Singapore F-35s," McClain said in a statement. "I’m disappointed the U.S. Air Force chose a different location."

The Air Force did not explain why the Fort Smith location was selected in a press release announcing the decision, and a Thursday evening inquiry by The Detroit News was not immediately answered.

The Air Force's decision is expected to boost the Fort Smith region's economy by up to $1 billion, according to the local newspaper, the Southwest Times Record. 

Macomb County Executive Mark Hackel told The News the Air Force's reasoning for not choosing Selfridge amounts to "excuses" and said he's "optimistic there's still a chance to reverse this decision" when the military hears from congressional leaders. 

Even if the decision isn't changed, Hackel said he's not concerned about the base's long-term viability. Selfridge is the Air Force's backup in "the rare case" the Fort Smith location is deemed unsuitable, he said. 

"There's no question that that installation is of value to the Air Force. It's pretty much locked in for something in the future," Hackel said. "Something's going to be coming this way."

Michigan lawmakers in Congress had written to Acting Secretary of the Air Force John Roth, urging him to select Selfridge for the international training center. 

They said Selfridge would be able to house and operate up to 24 F-35 aircraft immediately, "with plenty of unused space on the premises to expand and house additional aircraft." 

The delegation also noted the Air Force already completed a recent environmental impact study for the bed-down of up to 18 F-35As at Selfridge, which would save time and costs.

The study was done because Selfridge, which currently hosts A-10 fighter and KC-135 tanker missions, in 2017 was in the running to store and maintain the F-35A, which is made by Lockheed Martin Corp. Selfridge lost to Dannelly Field Air Guard Station in Montgomery, Alabama, and Truax Air Guard Station in Madison, Wisconsin, for that mission. 

Selfridge has been seeking to host F-35As because the Air Force wants to retire A-10 fighters, which were originally built during the Cold War to attack Soviet tank columns if they ever invaded Western Europe — something that never happened. Instead, the ground attack aircraft has been used to fight in Iraq and Afghanistan.

In December, the Air Force wanted to retire 44 out of the 281 A-10s in service, according to Defense News. But House and Senate members protected the Warthog in the fiscal 2021 National Defense Authorization Act, ensuring they would keep flying. 

rbeggin@detroitnews.com

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