Davis-Monthan Air Force Base has been passed over, for now, as a home to new drones or the F-35 Lightning II next-generation fighter jet.
After months of study and site visits, the secretary of the Air Force announced that Shaw Air Force Base in South Carolina is the preferred location to base a new MQ-9 Reaper remotely piloted aircraft group.
Naval Air Station Joint Reserve Base Fort Worth, Texas, was named the preferred location for the first Air Force Reserve-led F-35 base.
D-M was a finalist for both missions and will be considered along with other finalists as reasonable alternatives during the environmental analysis process that must be completed before the Air Force makes a final basing decision.
Other F-35 site finalists were Homestead Air Reserve Base in Florida and Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri.
The Air Force Reserve unit in Fort Worth was selected for the F-35 because it met all of the training requirements at the lowest cost, Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James said in a news release.
The base’s close proximity to Lockheed Martin’s F-35 assembly line in Fort Worth also will provide “mission synergy and access to an experienced workforce for recruiting,” James added.
The other finalists for the drone site were Moody Air Force Base in Georgia; Mountain Home Air Force Base, Idaho; and Offutt Air Force Base, Nebraska.
The need for additional locations for Reaper units was identified during surveys of officers and enlisted airmen as part of an Air Combat Command initiative to address quality-of-life issues that have made it difficult to attract and keep drone pilots.
“Shaw AFB was selected because it was the best option to help us diversify assignment opportunities for personnel within the MQ-9 enterprise, provide increased opportunities for leadership from within the community, and provide flexibility to enhance integration with other organizations and capabilities,” James said.
Once a final site is selected, the first airmen assigned to the new drone group are expected to begin arriving there in fiscal year 2018, the Air Force said. No drones will be based at the location , which will be a “mission control element” consisting of remote piloting operations.
Though Davis-Monthan may be high on the list for subsequent basings, the news is a blow to efforts to attract new missions to D-M, as its mainstay A-10 Thunderbolt II ground-attack jets are scheduled for retirement in phases by 2022.
Local officials have been lobbying for new missions for D-M and have hired a consultant to plot strategies to save the base from future budget cuts, citing D-M’s estimated annual economic impact of about $990 million.
Rep. Martha McSally, a Tucson Republican and former A-10 pilot, called the news unfortunate, citing “one-time startup costs” that may have taken D-M out of the running as the preferred site for the drone and F-35 missions.
But McSally said D-M still has a bright future.
“We are just beginning to grow our F-35 and unmanned aerial assets, and Davis-Monthan will remain a competitive site for future missions,” McSally said in an emailed statement.
She noted that D-M already houses unmanned missions as part of the Air National Guard and offers the opportunity to train with other assets like A-10s and F-16s.
“I look forward to continue working with the new civilian leadership to highlight our base and what makes it so valuable to the Air Force,” McSally said.
The head of a local business and community group that supports D-M and its airmen said the latest basing news was disappointing, but also noted that D-M still is under consideration for critical missions.
Bob Logan, president of the DM50, said although Shaw is now the presumed favorite for the new drone group, D-M will still get a look as part of the environmental assessment and may be in line for follow-on units.
“We all know the RPA (remotely piloted aircraft) mission is going to be expanding for many, many years,” Logan said, noting that the Air Force is also looking at creating a new RPA wing, which is larger than a group.
The Air Force, in announcing Shaw as a preferred location, said it is considering another location to host an MQ-9 wing with up to 24 MQ-9s, launch and recovery elements, a mission-control element, a maintenance group and support personnel.
D-M is host to the Air National Guard 214th Reconnaissance Squadron, which remotely pilots unmanned aircraft in combat zones from its base at D-M.
D-M is not currently approved for drone launching and landing operations, though the 214th has such a capability at Libby Army Airfield in Sierra Vista.
Logan, a University of Arizona assistant dean, said F-35 basing has become very competitive, and Fort Worth had an obvious edge as F-35s roll off Lockheed’s assembly line practically next door to the joint air base.
F-35 basings will continue to widen as more enter service, Logan said, predicting that D-M eventually will gain an F-35 unit.
Logan said D-M remains an important training base with its weather and nearby training ranges and it’s still under consideration to host more F-16 training.
Meanwhile, he noted, D-M’s A-10s are being retrofitted with the latest communication systems for search-and-rescue missions.
The upgraded system, known as the Lightweight Airborne Recovery System V-12, provides A-10 pilots with GPS coordinates of ground personnel and allows them to communicate via voice or text.
The systems are being installed by the 309th Aircraft Maintenance and Regeneration Group, a major tenant at D-M that operates the Air Force’s biggest military maintenance and salvage operation.