A group of civic and business leaders launched a new effort Wednesday to boost support for Southern Arizona’s military installations, with survey results showing strong community backing of Davis-Monthan Air Force Base and other bases in the region.
In the survey, released Wednesday by the Southern Arizona Defense Alliance, nearly 92 percent of residents polled said they support the presence of such bases very strongly, strongly or moderately, with nearly 49 percent expressing very strong support.
The survey — which was done partly to counter Pentagon doubts about community support here — also showed noisier aircraft wouldn’t alter most residents’ support of D-M.
The local defense support group — which in addition to community and civic leaders includes business organizations and military-support groups such as the DM50 — used the survey findings to launch its new “Mission Strong” awareness program in an event at the UNS Energy Corp. headquarters.
The Southern Arizona Defense Alliance also unveiled a new website, www.missionstrongaz.org, where people can join up to participate in the effort.
Ron Shoopman, a retired Air Force brigadier general and president of the Southern Arizona Leadership Council, said the survey findings and the Mission Strong initiative will be used both to raise awareness among the public and to reassure Pentagon officials that the Southern Arizona community welcomes and values the region’s bases.
Shoopman said the military installations — besides D-M including Fort Huachuca, the Air National Guard 162nd Fighter Wing and the Marine Corps Air Station in Yuma — support about 62,000 jobs and pump $5.4 billion annually into the region’s economy. Arizona ranks seventh among the states in military spending, he added.
“The importance, the critical nature of our military presence, can’t be overstated,” Shoopman told a crowd of more than 100 local officials and supporters at Wednesday’s event.
The survey comes as the Pentagon is looking to ax one of D-M’s primary missions by eliminating the A-10 Thunderbolt II close- air-support jet for budget savings, and controversy grows over the deployment of the nation’s next-generation fighter jet, the F-35 Lightning II.
“The budget cuts facing our nation, particularly our military and sequestration, are by many estimates draconian,” said Shoopman, former commander of the 162nd Fighter Wing. “That means only the best bases, the ones that are the most efficient, the ones that are the most effective, the ones that are most supported by their communities, will survive these cuts.”
Shoopman said community support, including local education and partnerships, is a key factor in the Pentagon’s Base Closure and Realignment Commission (BRAC) process of selecting bases for closure, which is expected to start up again in 2017.
Shoopman said Mission Strong “is a long-term effort; it’s not a one-and-done.”
“The challenge is to raise our voices to say we support the men and women of our installations, the missions they perform, and we support the bases themselves,” he said.
A leader of the DM50, a group of more than 100 civic and business leaders supporting Davis-Monthan and its mission, said the survey was initiated after group leaders visited the Pentagon last July and found a perception that local support for the military was mixed at best.
“They believed Tucson was a divided community, and we came back to change that perception,” DM50 President Mike Grassinger said.
The defense alliance waged a letter-writing campaign, and last week, Southern Arizona Defense Alliance leaders presented survey results to congressional leaders and Pentagon officials.
“They had a completely different opinion of Tucson from July. It does work, and we need to carry it forward,” said Grassinger, a former Air Force pilot.
“If there’s a future BRAC, that is going to be the marginal difference between communities of whether a base is closed or not.”
The survey showed that 48.6 percent of respondents expressed “very strong support,” 26.7 percent signaled “strong support,” and 16.3 percent said they “moderately support” military installations in the region. The rest indicated “little support” for the military bases (5.8 percent) or no support (2.5 percent).
The poll, conducted in November by Tucson-based Strongpoint Marketing, included 617 respondents and had a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points.
Most of the respondents who support the military bases cited the benefits they bring to the local economy and their importance to national defense.
The survey also addressed a controversy over the rollout of the next-generation F-35, which has been criticized as being too noisy and dangerous for urban bases like Tucson’s. D-M was passed over in the first round of F-35 basing decisions in 2012.
The survey showed that 70 percent of overall respondents completely or somewhat agreed that the benefits of having a strong military presence here outweigh any issues regarding noise generated by aircraft, even if the aircraft were louder then planes currently flying here.
While that finding was similar for residents living near D-M or the 162nd Air National Guard at Tucson International Airport, 23 percent of those living near the bases said that noise from military aircraft has a disruptive and negative effect on their quality of life, while 18 percent of overall respondents felt that way.
The survey also shows that among those aware of the possibility of the F-35 being based in Southern Arizona, 82 percent were very much or somewhat in favor of the F-35 coming here.
The leader of Tucson Forward, a nonprofit group vehemently opposed to basing F-35s at D-M or at the 162nd Air Guard, said it’s not surprising that the Southern Arizona Defense Alliance found broad support for military operations in the region.
In fact, Tucson Forward is supportive of D-M and its current mission using relatively quiet, twin-engine A-10s, said the group’s president, Mary Terry Schiltz.
“We’re very supportive of D-M, and the A-10 for that matter, because it is the safest and quietest the Air Force has,” Schiltz said.
But the group, which Schiltz says has hundreds of members, remains firmly opposed to stationing the F-35s at the local bases because they are much louder than the A-10 and even the F-16, which is flown mainly at the Air Guard here.
Tucson Forward also opposes basing single-engine jets like the F-16 at urban bases because they may crash because of engine failure, unlike the A-10 and other twin-engine aircraft that can safely land with one functioning engine.
“It’s just not appropriate over a city of this size, and we already have serious encroachment issues,” Schiltz said. “We are concerned about D-M because of the encroachment, and if you bring in a louder, single-engine, single-pilot (plane), that’s just not safe flying over the University of Arizona, over parks and hospitals.”