Idaho Air Guard could move from Gowen Field to Mountain Home

Boise's mayor questions the logic behind a plan to consolidate bases

jsowell@idahostatesman.com sberg@idahostatesman.comMarch 26, 2014 

  • GOWEN HISTORY

    The Idaho Air National Guard was established in 1946. Most of the original 23 officers and 44 enlisted men had served in World War II. They gathered one evening a week at a small building on Fort Street in Downtown Boise.

    The 190th Fighter Squadron moved the following year to Gowen Field, still owned by the city of Boise. The field, leased by the Army Air Corps during World War II, had served as a major training base for the B-17 Flying Fortress and the B-24 Liberator. More than 6,000 men - including actor James Stewart, who learned to pilot the B-24 - were stationed at Gowen Field during the war.

    Located south of the Boise Airport, the field was named after Caldwell native 1st Lt. Paul R. Gowen in 1941. He attended the University of Idaho and graduated ninth in his class at West Point. Gowen, 29, was killed July 11, 1938, when a B-10 bomber he was flying crashed on a beach during a routine mission near Panama City.

The Idaho Air National Guard could move its operations from Gowen Field south of Boise to Mountain Home Air Force Base if President Barack Obama's budget proposal to Congress becomes law.

The Air Force plans to eliminate its entire fleet of A-10 Thunderbolt IIs, which totals 107 planes assigned to Gowen Field and three other bases around the country. Gowen has 22 of the planes.

Though the potential elimination of the A-10, known as the Warthog, has been talked about for several months, moving operations to Mountain Home is a new development.

Gowen Field's 22 A-10s account for the Idaho Air National Guard's entire fleet of aircraft. Between pilots, ground crews, maintenance crews, purchasers, payroll experts and other support staff, the group that operates the fleet accounts for about 1,000 jobs, said Col. Tim Marsano, Idaho Air National Guard spokesman. About two-thirds of those people are part-time reservists who work one weekend a month and two weeks a year.

The Idaho Air National Guard worries that moving its operations an hour's drive from the Treasure Valley will hurt its ability to recruit and retain reservists.

"Will people from Nampa and Caldwell want to go that far? It's a little too early to talk about that," Marsano said. "We don't know if this plan put out by the Pentagon will play out. There are a lot of what-ifs."

The city of Boise worries that moving operations 40 miles southeast will strip Boise of jobs, hindering its economic recovery. Even though many of the people who work and do reserve time at Gowen Field live outside of Boise, being the home of those jobs is a benefit to the capital.

"It's very puzzling to find out that the plan is to move the Air Guard out to Mountain Home," Boise Mayor Dave Bieter said. "It really makes no sense. We haven't been able to find virtually any of the reasoning behind that."

PLENTY OF OPTIONS, FEW CERTAINTIES

The Air Force is looking to cut $3.5 billion from its budget through the elimination of the A-10s over a five-year period. The Air Force is also looking at moving a number of Air Guard units to nearby Air Force bases to save money.

If the proposed changes take place, the Idaho Air Guard would lose its A-10s during the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1, according to an Air Force map posted to the website of the National Guard Association of the United States, a private group.

"The nation would be missing a great opportunity, and Idaho would be losing an incredible asset, if the Pentagon proceeds on what appears to be a glide path toward eliminating the flying mission of the Idaho Air National Guard," said a statement issued by the office of Gov. Butch Otter. "The high level of community support for its current mission and the great value to our citizens from the Air Guard's Gowen Field operations cannot be overstated and should not be overlooked."

Deactivating the A-10 doesn't mean the Idaho Air National Guard won't have an air presence anymore. Military people and Washington lawmakers have discussed the possibility of switching the A-10 crews over to the F-15E, an Air Force fighter jet that can attack targets on the ground and in the air, Marsano said. The switch would require extra training for pilots and crews.

If that happens, the Air Guard could operate out of Mountain Home - which already has 45 F-15s - using some of the same facilities that the Air Force uses, Marsano said. But that's not certain, either.

Another possibility is to put F-15s at Gowen instead of the A-10s.

WHOSE DEAL IS BETTER?

Mountain Home Mayor Tom Rist said his city would welcome the Air Guard's staff and reservists "with open arms."

"We, from our standpoint, are not trying to cause problems for Gowen Field," Rist said. "Our support lies with Mountain Home Air Force Base, but it also lies with what the Air Force is trying to do in regards to their budget. To fly those planes in two areas … the cost savings isn't there."

Boise also can offer savings, said Rebecca Hupp, director of the Boise Airport. Instead of operating its own airfield, Hupp said, the Air Guard uses the civilian airport's runways and other facilities and pays the city — which owns the airport — to cover its share of maintenance. Last year, that cost was less than $100,000, Hupp said, which is much less than would have to be paid for new facilities in Mountain Home.

The budget for the Idaho Air and Army National Guard is about $300 million, almost all of which comes from the federal government, Marsano said.

The retirement of the A-10 would not put the operations of the Idaho Air National Guard in limbo, said Col. Nahaku McFadden, public affairs adviser to Lt. Gen. Stanley E. Clarke III, the national director of the Air National Guard.

"The Idaho Air National Guard has a continuing mission," said McFadden, who works at the Pentagon.

Clarke is scheduled to be in Idaho on Wednesday in what McFadden said is a routine visit to speak with both Air Guard officials and Gowen Field personnel. City officials hope to convince him that the Gowen Field operation is worth saving.

CONGRESSIONAL DELEGATION WEIGHS IN

U.S. Sens. Mike Crapo and Jim Risch say they have been engaged with Pentagon officials since the president released his proposed budget.

"We have serious concerns regarding the Air Force's plan to divest the entire A-10 fleet, and this year Congress will debate in depth the merits of the Air Force's plans," Crapo and Risch said in a joint statement. "These discussions are ongoing and we are confident the state of Idaho can reach a win-win solution so that both Mountain Home Air Force Base and the Idaho Air National Guard will continue to be invaluable assets for the Air Force."

U.S. Rep. Raul Labrador, whose district includes Gowen Field, has also spoken to Air Force and Air Guard officials and has termed those conversations "productive and ongoing," Labrador spokesman Todd Winer said.

U.S. Rep. Mike Simpson's district includes Mountain Home. His spokeswoman, Nikki Watts, said Simpson is aware of the Air Force proposal and is "concerned by it."

"We remain supportive of the A-10 mission despite the Obama administration's plans and believe Congress will be reviewing the plan ... as we prepare our own budget alternative," Watts said in an email Tuesday. "We will be working within Congress and in tandem with Governor Otter and Mayor Bieter to support the ongoing vitality of both Gowen Field and Mountain Home Air Force Base."

WOULD A MOVE HURT?

Gowen Field is located away from major residential areas, an advantage over bases in more populated states and near congested areas. It has ample hangar and ramp space, Hupp said.

Mountain Home also has those advantages.

Idaho Air Guard officials are unable to weigh in on the debate. Marsano said the Air Guard will do whatever the Air Force decides.

The city of Boise points to a study submitted to the president and Congress on Jan. 30 that recommended moving 24 F-15s to Gowen Field if the A-10 is retired.

Both the Idaho Air National Guard and Mountain Home Air Force Base were among 11 finalists from 205 facilities considered to host the new F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. Bieter said both installations were highly regarded.

"How do you rate so highly during a process and then two years later you want to scrap one of the bases?" Bieter asked. "We hope people understand how important it is to retain this operation."

The three other locations where A-10s would be eliminated at Selfridge Air National Guard Base in Michigan, Fort Wayne International Airport in Indiana and Martin State Airport in Maryland.

John Sowell: 377-6423. Sven Berg: 377-6275

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