F-16 aircraft

The 162nd Wing of the Arizona National Guard, based at Tucson International Airport, is the Guard’s biggest F-16 training base.

The National Guard plans to drop funding for its Operation Snowbird visiting-unit training program, operated at Davis-Monthan Air Force base by the Air National Guard 162nd Wing, according to court documents.

The plan to drop Operation Snowbird training was revealed in a document filed Monday in a federal lawsuit aimed at stopping a plan to expand visitor unit training at Davis-Monthan.

A May 23 memorandum from the chief of airspace and ranges for the Air Guard states the Guard will pull funding for the Operation Snowbird operations detachment at D-M at the end of the 2017 fiscal year, Sept. 30.

“Due to reductions in Air National Guard participation in the (Operation Snowbird) program, the return of investment of continuing (Operation Snowbird) has fallen below a reasonable threshold,” Col. Brian K. Lehew wrote.

The memo was filed in the federal lawsuit to support an agreement by the Air Force and the residents who challenged the D-M training expansion to suspend the schedule for filing legal briefs in the case pending a final decision on the future of Operation Snowbird.

The memo said the decision, made “as part of an overall reassessment of Air National Guard training requirements,” will end support for Operation Snowbird facilities at D-M, possibly affecting other D-M training that have used logistical support from the Snowbird office.

An attorney for the plaintiffs in the lawsuit challenging the D-M training expansion said the development could make the lawsuit moot, depending on the Air Force’s plans for the other training programs.

“We’re not quite sure, until a decision gets finalized, what it means,” said Joy Herr-Cardillo, a staff attorney at the Arizona Center for Law in the Public Interest.

“Certainly, there’s the potential that it would moot out the case, if ultimately all of the Total Force training goes away.”

National Guard officials confirmed the plan to close down Operation Snowbird but had no additional comment Tuesday on factors that led to the decision or whether the program might be replaced by other training.

Though the Air National Guard 162nd Wing is based at Tucson International Airport, the wing staffs a dedicated Operation Snowbird facility at D-M.

The facility has nine full-time personnel and an annual budget of $73,000 this year, said 1st Lt. Lacey Roberts, a spokeswoman for the wing.

About 20 out-of-state Air Guard units have trained here this year as part of Operation Snowbird, she said.

Robert Medler, president of the Air Guardians community support group for the 162nd Wing, said although the ending of Operation Snowbird would be unfortunate, it would have limited effect on the 162nd Wing’s core operations.

With four F-16 squadrons and more than 1,500 personnel, the 162nd Wing at TIA is the Guard’s biggest F-16 fighter training base and is a center of training for F-16 pilots from allied nations including Iraq and the Netherlands. It also commands an unmanned aircraft unit, the 214th Reconnaissance Group, stationed at D-M.

“This is a small component of what the wing does,” Medler, a vice president at the Tucson Metro Chamber, said of Operation Snowbird. “I’m not worried about it all.”

A former commander of the 162nd Wing said the loss of Operation Snowbird operations would be unfortunate but would have little impact on the 162nd Wing’s operations.

“Its just a small contingent of people who keep the doors open until a unit moves in, so the fact they’re going to defund that doesn’t necessarily mean that the site won’t ever be used again,” said Ron Shoopman, president of the Southern Arizona Leadership Council and a retired Air Force brigadier general.

However, Shoopman said he is concerned that if the Operation Snowbird center at Davis-Monthan closed permanently, it might have a negative affect on the host base.

Amid defense budget pressures, groups such as the DM50 are concerned about the future of D-M because the base is facing the loss of its main flying mission in a few years with the planned retirement of the A-10 Thunderbolt II close air-support jet.

“If we give it (Operation Snowbird) up, we lose part of the value of the Davis-Monthan package,” Shoopman said. “One of the values the base has is, it’s got this deployment center where in times of crisis when we need to spin up for a conflict, we’ve got a place to send people to get first-class flight training.”

A spokeswoman for U.S. Rep. Martha McSally, a Tucson Republican and a former Air Force combat pilot who sits on the House Armed Services Committee, said McSally is concerned about the plan to shutter Operation Snowbird and has requested more information from the Pentagon.

Operation Snowbird was started in 1975 to give National Guard units from colder climates a place to train in the winter, taking advantage of Southern Arizona’s warm weather and abundant nearby training ranges. It later developed into a year-round training program.

In 2012, the Air Force proposed increasing the maximum number of training flights at D-M, including Operation Snowbird and other active-duty and reserve training, under the umbrella of “Total Force Training.”

The Air Force plan would increase annual Total Force Training sorties at D-M by as much as 65 percent from a 2009 baseline, to up to 2,326 sorties per year.

Of those projected sorties, 1,582 or about two-thirds were expected to be part of Operation Snowbird, according to the Air Force environmental assessment of the proposed program expansion.

Three Tucson residents filed a federal lawsuit in January 2016, alleging the Air Force erred in finding that the expansion of the Total Force Training program would have “no significant impact” on the community.

The residents oppose any increase in military overflights, citing concerns over increased noise and health and safety issues and alleging the Air Force ignored many potential negative impacts in approving the plan.

That lawsuit in the U.S District Court for Arizona has yet to reach hearings.

“One of the values the base has is it’s got this deployment center
where in times of crisis when we need to spin up for a conflict,
we’ve got a place to send people to get first-class flight training.” Ron Shoopman, president of the Southern Arizona Leadership Council

Contact senior reporter David Wichner at dwichner@tucson.com or 573-4181. On Twitter: @dwichner

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