No F-35s for Boise as Air Force picks other bases

An F-35 fighter jet on display at the Gowen Thunder 2017 air show at Gowen Field in October. Joe Jaszewski / Idaho Statesman file

Gowen Field is not on the U.S. Air Force’s list of preferred sites for a squadron of F-35s, the Air Force announced Thursday.

The military picked Truax Field Air National Guard Base in Madison, Wisconsin, and Dannelly Field Air Guard Station in Montgomery, Alabama, as its preferred sites. F-35s could start to arrive at those bases in 2023.

Gowen and Air Guard facilities in Florida and Michigan “were reasonable alternatives, but not preferred,” said a statement on the Air Force’s website.

That status will keep Gowen and the others in the running, should the Air Force find a problem with one of the two preferred sites, Idaho officials including Gov. Butch Otter and Boise Mayor David Bieter said in a late-morning press release. Federal authorities will still perform an environmental study of the effects of staging F-35s here, including noise and other possible effects. Dates for that study have not yet been set.

“Although we are disappointed that Gowen Field will not receive primary consideration as a site for the F-35 mission, as a reasonable alternative we will undergo the same evaluations as the four other primary and alternative locations,” Otter said. “We are confident that through this process, Gowen Field will be recognized as a logical choice to receive these state-of-the-art aircraft.”

The Air Force’s decision ends, for now, a yearslong argument in the Treasure Valley about whether F-35s belong here. But it leaves unanswered the question of what will happen to the Idaho Air National Guard’s flying mission.

The Air Force plans to eventually decommission all A-10s in its fleet, including the 22 based at Gowen, which shares the Boise Airport’s runways. Local and state politicians, economic cheerleaders and military officials hope to see a new warplane based at Gowen to replace it.

The Air Force announced in 2014 that it planned to ground the A-10s based here and move the Idaho Air National Guard’s flying mission to Mountain Home Air Force Base. That decision appears to have been shelved for the moment.

Speaking at a press conference Thursday morning, Bieter said the Air Force’s picks suggest it will retire the F-16 before the A-10. Both Truax and Dannelly field F-16s; Boise Airport Director Rebecca Hupp said it’s unlikely Gowen lands one of those wings.

Bieter said Boise could be in the running for a future round of F-35 deployments, though. He pointed out that the Air Force has repeatedly delayed its planned retirement of A-10s. Now, Bieter said, military officials are saying A-10s could stay operational until 2029 — 15 years later than the Air Force’s initial timeline suggested.

“They tell us very clearly, at the highest levels, that Gowen and our airspace are so valuable that the plan of the Air Force now is to keep a fighting mission at Gowen Field for years to come,” Bieter said. “I believe that we will have an F-35 someday in the future.”

Many comments focused on community backing for the Guard’s overall mission.

“We are especially appreciative of the support we have received from the community over the last year,” said Brig. Gen. Michael J. Garshak, who commands the Idaho National Guard. “From our neighbors to local business owners, from our local elected officials to the governor’s office and our federal delegation, we thank our community for helping make Gowen Field a consideration to receive the F-35.”

But some Boiseans were vehemently opposed to bringing the F-35 to Boise. They deemed it too loud for an airport sitting near homes. Noise from the planes taking off and landing would make the city a less enjoyable place to live, they say, and harm the health of people, especially children who live or attend the several schools located near the airport.

Citizens for a Livable Boise, the lead opponents, called on the Guard Thursday to examine “better, more environmentally friendly mission choices,” mentioning cargo and transport planes, drones and cybersecurity work.

“Good things can come out of being passed over for the F-35,” the group’s statement said.

The final picks

The Air Force announced in late 2016 that Gowen was one of five finalist bases for an Air National Guard wing of F-35s.

Speaking to the Statesman earlier this year, Alabama officials said one of their key advantages was Dannelly Field’s proximity to Maxwell-Gunter Air Force Base. The Air Force base is less than 10 miles as the crow flies from the Montgomery Regional Airport, where the Air Guard’s 187th operates. That gives the fighter wing an extra runway in case of emergencies, and gives Guard personnel convenient access to medical treatment, the Air Force commissary and other military services.

Besides its own airspace, Dannelly Field also has access within minutes to other training ranges along the Gulf of Mexico coastline. The 187th Fighter Wing based there descends from the group that trained the Tuskegee Airmen, which included most of America’s black military pilots during World War II.

Authorities in Wisconsin also played up Truax’s airspace and possible cost savings. First, Truax Field is just 50 miles from the Volk Field Combat Readiness Training Center, which would provide “a training area for all F-35A missions in one centralized location,” said Maj. Kristin Boustany, Wisconsin Air Guard spokeswoman. At the training area, she said, pilots can drop precision-guided munitions and train in electronic warfare.

Second, the Wisconsin Guard’s 128th Air Refueling Wing operates out of a base in Milwaukee, less than 80 miles due east of Madison. Having refueling ability “can double the tactical training time per training flight,” Boustany said.

“The combination of these efficiencies allows the 115th Fighter Wing to assure maximum mission readiness for national defense at the lowest possible cost,” she said.

The alternates

The Michigan facility, Selfridge Air National Guard Base, is the biggest Air Guard base in the country and has its own runway. (Gowen and many other bases share space with commercial traffic.) It has A-10s like Gowen, and also KC-135 Stratotankers, which can refuel planes mid-air around the world. The National Guard Association of the United States named Selfridge the best Guard flying unit of 2016, a recognition of its safety and performance record, as well as community involvement.

The Jacksonville Air Guard Station in Florida again touted its airspace — two large training areas that total 330,000 square miles — and offers more flyable days than most Guard bases around the country. Perhaps most relevant: The 125th Fighter Wing based there has helped develop training techniques and procedures for the F-35, so its people have familiarity with the aircraft that other wings don’t.

Here in Idaho, Gowen Field advocates talked up the quality and quantity of the base’s airspace. At 7,400 square miles, the Mountain Home Range Complex south of Boise isn’t huge. But it boasts more varied terrain than Gowen’s competitors and allows for electronic warfare training like in Wisconsin; that should be an edge, Idaho Guard leaders said earlier this year.

Gowen also has big buildings (thanks to a group of C-130s once based here) and plenty of space for servicing and storing planes; is close to another base, Mountain Home Air Force Base; and has fewer major weather problems than some of the other locations.

What’s next for Idaho?

The Guard brings a lot of money into the Treasure Valley. The budget for the Idaho Air and Army National Guard is about $300 million. Almost all of that money comes from the federal government.

Guard leaders also worry that moving the flying mission to Mountain Home — and away from Idaho’s population center — would hurt the Air Guard’s ability to recruit and retain personnel, most of whom are reservists with outside jobs and families.

“As its sole flying mission, more than 90 percent of the roughly 1,300 Idaho Air National Guard personnel are directly associated with A-10 operations at Gowen Field,” the Thursday news release from Otter’s office stated. “These roles include pilots, maintenance, logistics, munitions, medical and other support personnel. Without a flying mission, many of these positions could be eliminated.”

Over the next year, the Air Force will now conduct research and analysis on its basing choices. That work will include environmental impact studies, performed in coordination with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and using an impartial third party to do the work.

Even if Boise never gets an F-35 mission, that work may finally answer continued questions about the exact effects of their noise here.

And for now, the A-10 appears to have the support Idaho leaders hoped for. Idaho National Guard Maj. Chris Borders touted the low- and slow-flying A-10’s niche in military operations.

“We are disappointed, but we are also really proud that we are going to fly and operate the A-10,” he said Thursday. “It is a true hero on the battlefield. There is continued support for the A-10s.”

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