Peters ends hold on Biden nominee after Air Force commits to Selfridge mission

Melissa Nann Burke
The Detroit News

Washington — Michigan Sen. Gary Peters was so upset by the Air Force's decision to pass over Selfridge Air National Guard Base for its planned international F-35 training center last month that he blocked President Joe Biden's nominee to lead the service from being considered by the Senate.

About seven weeks later, Peters has lifted his hold on Air Force secretary nominee Frank Kendall's nomination, as well as holds on nine other Department of Defense nominees that Peters placed in response to the Selfridge decision, he said Monday.

Frank Kendall III, President Joe Biden's nominee to be secretary of the Air Force, appears for his confirmation hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee, at the Capitol in Washington, Tuesday, May 25, 2021.

That was after the Democratic senator receiving in writing a commitment from the Air Force to retain and modernize the squadron of A-10s at Selfridge in Harrison Township for at least the next decade, “into the 2030s and beyond,” according to a copy of the letter.

The commitment from the Pentagon comes after years of efforts by lawmakers to keep the A-10 Thunderbolt II flying, including funding for new wings and advanced avionics, overcoming plans by the Air Force to retire the aircraft.

It's unusual for a Democratic senator to block a nominee from a president of the same party,much less 10 nominees. Thiswas the first time that Peters had placed a hold on such a high-profile pick, he said. 

"We’ve been pushing the Air Force aggressively after what I think was a very bad decision to locate the F-35 training mission in Arkansas, versus Selfridge. Clearly, Selfridge was the best choice based on all of the objective criteria that was put forward," Peters told The Detroit News.

"The Air Force made a big mistake, and we aggressively challenged that decision. We demanded answers to our questions and, quite frankly, those answers were not very good," he added.

"But right now, it's important for us to focus on the future for Selfridge and to make sure that we continue to base aircraft there, and it continues to play a pivotal role in our national security."

Air Force commits

The July 16 letter is signed by Acting Air Force Secretary John P. Roth, who writes that Selfridge's 107th Fighter Squadron will retain all of its 21 existing A-10s for the next decade.

Roth also said the aircraft will receive wing upgrades by fiscal year 2026, as part of the Air Force's "future fighter force plan" to "right-size" the entire A-10 fleet to 218 aircraft and maintain seven operational A-10 squadrons.

"Put simply, Selfridge's critical role as an A-10 base will continue," Roth wrote.

Roth in the letter also confirms the continuation of the 127th Wing's flying mission involving the KC-135 refueling squadron at Selfridge, saying they will "remain an indispensable source of tanker capacity" within the Air Force. 

Roth wrote that the KC-135s at Selfridge will be among the 300 KC-135s that the Air Force "plans to keep," eventually replacing them with either the KC-46 or a future "follow-on" aircraft. 

A spokeswoman for the Air Force did not immediately respond to a request for comment Monday.

Asked whether future administrations would honor Roth's letter, Peters said he hopes that they would, but also that it's important for the Air Force to demonstrate that commitment "every year." That's why it was also critical for the Air Force to prioritize investments in military construction at facilities in Michigan, he said. 

Sen. Gary Peters., D-Mich.

Peters noted the authorization of $128 million worth of military construction projects at Michigan facilities in the annual defense policy bill that the Senate Armed Services Committee advanced late last week. 

That includes $28 million toward a new A-10 hangar and maintenance facility at Selfridge and $23 million for a fifth-generation hangar and maintenance facilities at the Alpena Combat Readiness Training Center.

The legislation also incorporates a "multi-domain" designation for the Alpena range that Peters said will ensure the Air Force and Army will continue to use the site — the largest air space east of the Mississippi to conduct aircraft exercises — as a "go-to" testing ground for defense technologies. 

"That was important for me to get that in because it shows that the Air Force is putting their money where their mouth is," Peters said. 

The bill also prohibits the Air Force from retiring the A-10 in 2022. It authorizes the service to retire up to 18 KC-135 aircraft next fiscal year but bars the Air National Guard from getting rid of any of the aerial refueling aircraft. 

U.S. Rep. Lisa McClain, a Republican whose district includes Selfridge, said she was glad to hear the Air Force committed to ensuring the A-10 and KC-135 missions.

"However, I believe Selfridge has a wealth of untapped resources that are not currently being utilized, and I will continue advocating for a mission better suited for the base, the 10th Congressional District, the State of Michigan and the entire nation," she said in a statement.

'Making noise'

Selfridge this year had been among five candidates under consideration by the Air Force to house up to 36 F-35s at the base while the service trained international student pilots and support personnel from Singapore, Poland, Finland and Switzerland.

The first contingent was expected to involve 150 families from Singapore moving to Michigan and living in the community, with pilots rotating out for training. A delegation from the Singapore Air Force visited Selfridge in late March to tour the base and meet with base officials.

But the Air Force in early June announced that it had selected a site in Arkansas instead

Air Force officials say they will make a final decision in spring 2023, designating Selfridge is the backup site if an environmental impact analysis finds the Arkansas site to be unsuitable.

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.

The decision prompted fierce criticism from local officials, Peters and U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Lansing, who also placed a hold on Kendall's nomination.

Peters said Monday the explanation he received from the Air Force was unsatisfactory and "insufficient," prompting him to place the hold on defense nominees starting in early June. Selfridge's mission had community support and would have required no significant infrastructure upgrades.

"With a Democratic president, to have a Democratic senator on the Armed Services Committee putting a hold on nominees certainly speaks to how important this is to Michigan," Peters said. 

“They need to know that we're going to hold them accountable for these types of decisions and are not going to accept them."

Peters said he spoke with numerous defense officials and raised the issue with Biden himself when the president visited Traverse City over the Fourth of July weekend. 

“He was aware of the issue, so we clearly have been making noise," Peters said.

Peters also said he met recently at his office with Kendall. Other senators had placed a hold on Kendall's nomination also, including Sens. Elizabeth Warren, D-Massachusetts, and Mike Lee, R-Utah.

It was unclear Monday whether both Lee and Warren's holds were still active. Stabenow's office said that she has lifted hers. The Armed Services Committee sent Kendall's nomination to the full Senate for consideration on June 10.

Macomb County Executive Mark Hackel said Monday there was both surprise and disappointment among local officials after the Air Force announced its decision last month, especially after Selfridge lost out on a previous F-35 opportunity during the Trump administration. 

Hackel, a Democrat, noted that Selfridge is "one of a kind" with every branch of the military co-located there. Peters clearly got the attention of folks in Washington, based on Roth's letter, Hackel said, calling him a "forceful advocate."

"I think they're realizing next time around when they're making decisions, they're going to make sure that he is heavily involved in those conversations as to locating some of these missions with some of these other fighter jets," Hackel said.

With Roth's letter, Peters said he "feels good" about where Selfridge is in terms of its A-10 and KC-135 aircraft, but that there might be other opportunities for the base to attract the F-35 or other fighters, such as a new version of the F-15 known as the F-15EX.

"We're waiting to see what plans develop for the deployment of the F-15EX. Selfridge. I think, would be a strong contender for that," Peters said. "It's a mission to defend the homeland and our position towards the middle of the country and is an asset, along with the the Alpena training range."

The Senate is expected to take up the annual defense policy bill in September after the August recess, and then negotiate its version with whatever House lawmakers put forward.

The legislation advanced last week in committee also includes $5.7 million to build a 650 kilowatt gas-fired power generation system at Camp Grayling; $59 million toward military facilities in Battle Creek; and $12 million to help construct new maintenance facilities at the Army Reserve unit in Southfield, Peter' office said. 

The bill also includes a 2.7% pay raise for the troops and $300 million in funding for environmental remediation at installations, which is the fund used in the cleanup of contamination by toxic fluorinated chemicals (PFAS).

mburke@detroitnews.com