D-M among candidates to get F-35s

An F-35 fighter taxis at Edwards Air Force Base.

Davis-Monthan Air Force Base is among four sites that will be considered as a base for an Air Force Reserve F-35A Lightning II fighter squadron by 2023, the Air Force announced Tuesday.

The other bases under consideration are Homestead Air Reserve Base in Florida; Naval Air Station Joint Reserve Base in Fort Worth, Texas; and Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri, the Air Force said in a news release.

The “preferred and reasonable alternatives” are expected to be selected in the fall, and the F-35As are set to begin arriving at the first Reserve-led F-35A location by the summer of 2023.

The Air Force also released basing criteria that will be used to select candidate bases for two Air National Guard squadrons, which are to get their first aircraft in the summer of 2022.

Local military supporters and government officials have been touting D-M for new missions as the Air Force has moved to retire the entire fleet of A-10 Thunderbolt II close-air-support jets, D-M’s biggest mission.

Blocked by Congress the last two fiscal years, the Air Force said in February it will delay the A-10 fleet’s final retirement until 2022, though D-M could start losing some of its A-10s by 2018.

Supporters cite D-M’s importance to the local economy, which had an estimated economic impact of $974 million in fiscal 2014 according to base figures.

But a vocal group of neighborhood activists have opposed the basing of the F-35 at D-M, arguing that plane is too loud to be based at the air base.

A pending lawsuit by three D-M neighbors seeks to halt an increase in training flights at D-M approved by the Air Force last year, alleging the Air Force failed to properly study noise, safety and other environmental factors.

Any move to base F-35s in Tucson would likely require a lengthy environmental study under federal law.

“The Air Force is committed to a deliberate and open process to address F-35 basing,” said Jennifer A. Miller, the deputy assistant secretary of the Air Force for installations. “As we progress through the basing process, we will share information so interested communities are aware of what to expect.”

The head of a Southern Arizona military-support group said the Air Force’s announcement is a good sign for D-M and Tucson.

“I think it’s a great opportunity for the community,” said David Godlewksi, chairman of the Southern Arizona Defense Alliance and president of the Southern Arizona Home Builders Association. “We’ve been saying all along we should be receptive and open to any and all future flying missions.”

Earlier this year, the Air Force named D-M among four bases under consideration for additional reconnaissance drone units.

Brian Harpel, president of the local support group the DM50, said he was surprised by the timing of the announcement but not by D-M’s selection as a potential F-35 base, noting that the group stressed community support to Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James when she visited Tucson in March.

“We conveyed our view that the community supports any flying mission at D-M, and that message seemed to be well-received by the secretary,” Harpel said.

Arizona Republicans Sen. John McCain Rep. Martha McSally cheered the Air Force announcement.

“I think it’s great news, and it lines up with my all-of-the-above strategy for Davis-Monthan and accepting and growing any mission there,” McSally said.

McSally, a former A-10 combat pilot at D-M, said the weather and proximity to ranges for live air-to-ground weapons training make D-M a “national treasure,” and since the F-35 is pegged as the future replacement for all of the U.S. tactical aircraft, it’s no surprise D-M would be considered for the F-35.

McCain echoed those sentiments.

“I’m confident that as the Air Force continues to finalize its site-selection process, Davis-Monthan will stand out as the best home for this vital aircraft,” McCain said in a prepared statement.

But a member of Tucson Forward, a group that has opposed operating the F-35 in Tucson, said the F-35 — the nation’s newest jet fighter — is too noisy and unproven to fly in an urban area.

The F-35 has been plagued by technical problems and cost overruns, and the Air Force version is not expected to be declared operationally ready until later this year.

“We’re really concerned about the safety of it — this is not something that should be flown over a densely populated city,” said Lee Stanfield, a Tucson Forward member who lives near East Broadway and South Wilmot Road.

A 2012 Air Force study showed that basing F-35s at the Arizona Air National Guard 162nd Wing at Tucson International Airport, a major F-16 training base, would subject thousands more residents to intrusive noise levels. The 162nd Wing was later passed over as an F-35 base.

Basing F-35s at D-M would affect even more residents, said Stanfield, a 73-year-old retired social worker and counselor.

“It will be a problem if they fly it where they have regular overflights now,” she said, noting that jets regularly fly over Reid Park and midtown.

McSally said she’s willing to listen to concerns over D-M operations, but the base is too important economically to abandon.

“If we were to lose the base or significant missions at the base, it would be devastating to this community,” she said.

“I’m willing to listen, but my position is, this community is very strongly in support of Davis-Monthan and in bringing any mission here,” she said. “I think there are ways we can work through the issues to mitigate any concerns as we go through the process.”

Stanfield said D-M’s economic importance to Tucson is overblown, and expanding aircraft operations would have a negative effect on tourism, which has a greater economic impact.

The Air Force said F-35 basing criteria for the Air National Guard bases include mission requirements such as weather, airspace and training-range availability, capacity like sufficient hanger and ramp space and facilities, environmental requirements, and cost factors.

The Air Force said it will evaluate Guard installations with runways of at least 8,000 feet and operational A-10 Thunderbolt IIs, F-16 Fighting Falcons or F-15 Eagles against the approved criteria to identify candidate bases for the F-35A.

Based on the criteria and site visits, the Air Force said it plans to identify candidate installations for the Air National Guard locations this summer, before selecting the preferred and reasonable alternatives and beginning the environmental impact analysis process later this year.

Contact Assistant Business Editor David Wichner at 573-4181 or dwichner@tucson.com

Senior reporter covering business and technology for the Arizona Daily Star/Tucson.com