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Here’s why politicians, business leaders are so enthusiastic about the F-35 mission

Maj. Ethan Sabin taxis after landing an F-35 at Mountain Home Air Force Base in February 2016.
Maj. Ethan Sabin taxis after landing an F-35 at Mountain Home Air Force Base in February 2016. kgreen@idahostatesman.com

The potential of moving the Air Guard out of Boise appears to have receded.

During a March trip to Washington, D.C., Boise Mayor Dave Bieter spoke to Pentagon officials, and he said they left him with the impression that Gowen Field will have some kind of long-term air mission, whether the Air Force bases a squadron of F-35s here or not, city spokesman Mike Journee said.

Gowen Field’s promoters and local business leaders want the F-35 badly. It would ensure the long-term presence of an Idaho Air National Guard mission in Boise and could enhance its economic benefit to the Treasure Valley.

That’s why Bill Connors, president and CEO of the Boise Metro Chamber of Commerce, calls Idaho’s F-35 push “the most important economic development-retention project of the decade.”

Here’s a deeper look at the F-35’s implications for Boise:

Q: How likely is Boise to get a squadron of F-35s?

The chances are hard to handicap, largely because the Air Force is tight-lipped about its process, but Boise is one of five finalist cities for a National Guard squadron of 18 to 24 F-35s. The Air Force plans to put squadrons at two of the five bases. So based on numbers alone, Boise has a 40 percent chance.

Of course, other criteria come into play. They include the quality of airspace, facilities and location. The people behind Boise’s F-35 push say Gowen rates strongly in each category. But then, the people backing similar pushes at the other four Guard bases say the same thing.

Q: When would F-35s arrive if the Air Force picks Boise?

Starting around 2021-22, Idaho National Guard spokesman Chris Borders said. They wouldn’t all show up at once. Instead, the Air Force would gradually swap out Gowen’s A-10s for F-35s.

Q: What happens if the Air Force doesn’t pick Boise?

Several possibilities exist. One is that the Air Force would replace Gowen’s A-10s with a different aircraft, such as the F-15. Gowen Field could lose its flying mission entirely, with Idaho Air National Guard operations moving to the Mountain Home Air Force Base, as the Pentagon proposed in 2014.

“The USAF and the National Guard Bureau would determine the Idaho Air National Guard’s future based off of the current needs of the Department of Defense, the USAF and (National Guard Bureau) at that time,” Guard spokesman Maj. Chris Borders said in an email.

Q: Why are politicians and economic experts so invested?

The Idaho Air National Guard is a big economic driver in the Treasure Valley, employing 1,300 workers and accounting for a total economic impact of more than $155 million, according to a study by Boise consultant Richard Gardner. His study didn’t examine the pros or cons of an F-35 mission.

Local and state leaders want to keep that contribution in place and, if possible, enhance it. They believe winning an F-35 wing offers the best chance to ensure the long-term viability of Gowen Field. They also say it would spark even more economic development from companies serving the new mission.

If, on the other hand, Boise loses the Guard’s flying mission altogether, economic and political leaders fear broad, long-term harm will ripple through the economy.

Economist Kevin Cahill wrote in an Idaho Statesman guest opinion that any prediction of the F-35’s economic impact should take into account negatives, especially public health concerns rising from additional noise and pollution.

Q: Why does the Guard care?

Recruiting and keeping its personnel. Just as with the local economy, the arrival of the F-35 could energize the Guard’s recruiting.

Guard leaders fear the opposite could happen if the mission moves to Mountain Home, 50 miles farther from Idaho’s densest population center and the place where most reservists live. Forcing those reservists, most of whom have jobs and families, to travel an additional 90 minutes round trip to comply with their duties might convince some to leave the Guard.

“The (Idaho Air National Guard) believes that such uncertainty of our organization’s future would jeopardize recruiting and retention efforts and consequently, mission readiness,” Borders said. “However, basing the F-35 at Gowen would guarantee a flying mission for the IDANG for the next 30-plus years.”

Q: Who decides?

Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson, whose office is overseen by Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, who reports to President Donald Trump.

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