So far, talk about the next flying mission at Boise’s Gowen Field has centered on how much noise a new type of military airplane would make.
Some people who live near the Boise Airport — whose runways Gowen’s military pilots use — say putting high-speed planes such as the F-15 or F-35 in Boise will make their homes unlivable. Advocates of bringing a squadron of F-35s with 16 to 24 jets to Boise downplay noise concerns, saying F-35s would affect fewer homes than opponents predict, and that flying techniques or physical barriers could reduce the noise impacts on homes. These advocates include the Idaho Air National Guard, which would operate the aircraft; virtually all political and economic leaders in Boise; Gov. Butch Otter; and the state’s entire congressional delegation.
Putting aside the noise question for now, how likely is Boise to score the F-35? The probability took a big jump in December, when the U.S. Air Force announced that Gowen Field was one of five finalists for a squadron. The Air Force plans to base F-35s at two of the five Air National Guard bases.
So based on numbers alone, Boise has a 40 percent chance of becoming a future home for F-35s. Of course, picking where to put the squadrons is more complex than a coin toss for the Air Force. Efforts to contact Air Force officials for information on the options or the process were unsuccessful.
A final decision on which two bases get F-35s is expected this fall. If the Air Force picks Gowen, F-35s might not arrive until 2022, Idaho Guard spokesman Maj. Chris Borders said.
According to an Air Force publication last year, criteria for picking bases include weather, availability of airspace for flight training, facilities like hangars and ramp space, environmental impacts and cost.
You probably won’t be surprised to hear that local advocates think Boise offers one of the best packages of those criteria compared to its four competitors. It’s also unsurprising that advocates make similar arguments for each of the other finalists.
“As you know, it’s not always just the score sheet,” said William Manley, a retired lieutenant colonel who’s a spokesman for the Florida Air National Guard, one of Idaho’s competitors for an F-35 squadron. “There’s a lot of intangibles. There’s a lot of political maneuvering that goes into it. And those are things that are outside of our control.”
Air Force inspectors will come to Boise to find out for themselves just how much promise Gowen offers. They’ll also visit the other bases. The Gowen visit is scheduled for June.
People hoping for an F-35 mission here say culture matters. Local resistance could derail Boise’s candidacy, they say. They’re not the only ones who say public dissent could be a problem for Gowen’s F-35 candidacy. A report in December by the Birmingham (Ala.) Business Journal identified concerns over noise as factors “detracting from (Gowen’s) chances” of landing the F-35.
Local advocates hope to calm opponents’ noise concerns before the Air Force makes its final basing decision. They point to the military importance of maintaining a Guard flying mission in Boise, as well as its capacity to attract new business and jobs to the Treasure Valley.
ECONOMICS AND RECRUITING
Most of the people fighting to keep F-35s out of Boise say they’re not opposed outright to military aircraft here, but they don’t want to sacrifice their happiness because experts say the F-35 would boost the Valley’s prosperity.
The Idaho Air National Guard employs some 1,300 workers and accounts for more than $155 million of economic output, according to a study conducted by Boise consultant Richard Gardner. The federal government injects much of that money into the local economy, so from an economic perspective, it’s as good as manufacturing income.
Politicians, economic experts and the Guard worry that missing out on the F-35 could lead to the end of military flying operations in Boise, putting a huge dent in the Treasure Valley’s economy. On the other hand, landing an F-35 squadron would be an economic boon. Bill Connors, president and CEO of the Boise Metro Chamber of Commerce, pointed to Ogden, Utah, whose economy has benefited from an expansion of F-35 manufacturer Lockheed Martin’s facilities as well as the opening of related tech companies since the Air Force stationed F-35s at the nearby Hill Air Force Base.
Something similar could happen here if Gowen gets a squadron of F-35s, Connors said. That’s why he thinks it’s “the most important economic development retention project of the decade.”
No dollar estimates were available for how much of an impact the F-35 could make in the Treasure Valley.
The Guard’s leaders worry that moving the air mission to Mountain Home Air Force Base, which the Defense Department proposed a few years ago, would hurt recruiting and retaining personnel, because it’s almost an hour’s drive east of Gowen Field and a longer commute from Idaho’s population center.
WHAT’S THE DIFFERENCE?
The Idaho Statesman tried but was unable to obtain the U.S. Air Force’s internal analyses of the five Air National Guard bases that are finalists for F-35 squadrons. Without that documentation, it’s hard to know how the Air Force is conducting its apples-to-apples comparisons of the bases or handicap each one’s chances of landing the F35.
All five meet the basic requirements: runways of at least 8,000 feet, active squadrons of A-10s, F-15s or F-16s and adequate facilities, weather and airspace access. If they didn’t, they wouldn’t have made it this far in the Air Force’s elimination process.
The remaining criteria are more subjective. How good are those facilities? What advantages does the airspace offer? Does one base offer more cost savings than the others? How about weather?
It’s impossible to know how the Air Force will weigh each one of these qualities. The Statesman spoke to representatives of each Air National Guard base that’s a finalist for the F-35, as well as people promoting those bases’ candidacies. Here’s a look at the cases they made for each base:
Boise, 124th Fighter Wing
Perhaps the biggest edge Gowen Field advocates claim is the quality, not just quantity, of 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 that should be an edge, Idaho Guard leaders say.
“It replicates so much of the environments that we’re operating in today, with regard to combat operations,” Borders said. “I mean, I could show you pictures of Afghanistan and you’d think you were looking out in the high desert mountains south of Boise.”
The 124th also has access to training areas in neighboring states.
Facilities — as boring as that sounds — are another selling point. Thanks to a group of C-130 Hercules transport planes that arrived in Boise in the 1990s, Gowen features big buildings and plenty of space for servicing and storing planes, as well as training pilots. That should save the military money if it chooses Gowen for an F-35 squadron.
Location is another advantage local Guard leaders point to. Being close to Mountain Home Air Force Base, where F-35 pilots would undergo initial training, could offer some convenience and a backup airfield. Being 1,500 miles farther west than any other finalist offers a strategic advantage.
Boise also features convenient weather for pilots, Guard leaders say. Because major weather disruptions are rare here, pilots spend less time grounded.
Alabama, 187th Fighter Wing
All five finalists are deserving, said Joe Greene, vice president for military and governmental affairs for the Montgomery Area Chamber of Commerce.
“We obviously believe Montgomery is the best,” Greene said.
Greene said a key advantage to the Alabama Air National Guard’s candidacy for the F-35 is its 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 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, Greene said.
Airspace is probably the most common asset each wing’s promoters cite as a benefit. Besides the airspace it most often uses, Greene said, the 187th has access within minutes to other ranges along the Gulf of Mexico coastline.
The 187th has historical significance, too. It is the descendant of the group that trained the Tuskegee Airmen, which included most of America’s black military pilots during World War II.
Wisconsin, 115th Fighter Wing
Elite airspace — and the cost savings it offers — is a big asset for the 115th, which operates out of Truax Field in Madison, said Major Kristin Boustany, spokeswoman for the Wisconsin Air National Guard.
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,” Boustany said in an email. At the training area, she said, pilots can drop precision-guided munitions and train in electronic warfare. (Gowen pilots also have access to electronic warfare capabilities in the Mountain Home range.)
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.
Michigan, 127th Wing
Like Boise’s 124th Fighter Wing, the 127th operates a squadron of A-10s. Unlike Gowen Field, the Selfridge Air National Guard Base, near Detroit, is home to KC-135 Stratotankers, which can refuel planes mid-air around the world.
Selfridge is the biggest Air National Guard base in the country, and it’s a half-hour flight from the largest military training airspace east of the Mississippi River, according to the 127th. It is within a two-hour flight of nine major U.S. and Canadian destinations, from Minneapolis to Boston, which can save the military money and give it flexibility in responding to a variety of calls, Selfridge advocates say.
Instead of sharing runways with commercial traffic, as Boise and many other Air National Guard bases do, the 127th operates its own airfield.
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.
Florida, 125th Fighter Wing
The argument for basing a squadron of F-35s in Jacksonville comes down to airspace, weather and community support.
The 125th has access to two large training areas that total 330,000 square miles, said William Manley, a retired Lt. Colonel who’s a spokesman for the Florida Air National Guard.
The weather in Jacksonville, where the 125th is based, offers more flyable days than most Guard bases around the country, Manley said, so pilots don’t have to wait around to get in their planes.
Also important is the support from locals who are used to living in a military town and state. Gov. Rick Scott is a Navy veteran who repeatedly declares Florida “the most military-friendly state in the nation.”
One more thing: The 125th has helped develop training techniques and procedures for the F-35, so its people have familiarity with the aircraft that other wings don’t.
F-35 at a glance
The F-35 was designed to be the next generation in attack aircraft for America and its allies. The plane is built to combine stealth technology and a fighter jet’s speed and agility with the ability to electronically locate and track targets, jam radars and disrupt attacks. The Lockheed Martin fighter would perform ground attack missions and provide air defense.
But unexpected costs, technology problems and schedule delays have plagued the F-35, leading to criticism from politicians who oversee military spending. The military expects the total cost of the F-35 program, which was touted as an affordable next-generation strike plane for the U.S. Navy, Air Force, Marines and American allies, to exceed $1 trillion, according to news reports.
The Air Force model will cost $95 million apiece, according to the latest contract. Models that permit shorter takeoffs and carrier landings for the Navy and vertical landings for the Marines would cost around $120 million each.
If Gowen is picked for an F-35 mission, the new planes would replace the current fleet of A-10 Thunderbolt IIs.
Details: Single seat, single engine; wingspan 35 feet; length 50 feet, 6 inches; top speed, mach 1.6 (about 1,200 mph).
Source: Joint Strike Fighter program, Statesman research