The Air National Guard has proposed an increase in F-16 flight operations at the Guard’s 162nd Wing at Tucson International Airport starting in late 2019, as a training unit of the Taiwan Air Force moves to Tucson from Luke Air Force Base near Phoenix.
The Air Force’s Air Education and Training Command has filed a draft environmental assessment that would allow the basing of 14 Taiwanese F-16s and related personnel at the 162nd Wing by December 2019.
That addition will come after a training contingent of the Iraqi Air Force is scheduled to exit the Tucson base in June, partially offsetting the effect of the additional Taiwanese jets, according to the draft environmental study.
After the Taiwan unit arrives, the annual number of training operations — counted as individual takeoffs, landings and practice runs — is expected to increase by about 16 percent.
The environmental assessment, developed in cooperation with the Federal Aviation Administration, also covers the construction of a new gate and security complex on South Park Avenue just south of East Valencia Road.
The draft assessment, part of a process required under the National Environmental Policy Act, includes a finding that the training changes and construction projects will have “no significant impact” on the local environment and community. It also found that a more extensive environmental impact statement is not required.
The draft was issued by the Air Force on July 1, according to an Air National Guard public information officer, but it had not been published in the Federal Register as of July 7.
The public typically has 30 days from publication of such environmental assessments to file comments on the plan, which will be formalized in a final environmental assessment.
According to the draft environmental assessment, the Air Force needs to move 14 F-16s and 191 associated personnel of the Taiwan Air Force — and eventually all the F-16s currently based at Luke — to accommodate the basing of 144 F-35A Lightning II stealth fighters at Luke, the biggest Air Force F-35 training site.
Those moves are part of a longer-term plan to shift F-16s to other bases to make way for the F-35, which will eventually replace the F-16 and most other fighters, including a plan to base an Air Force Reserve F-16 unit at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base.
But F-16s are still being produced for foreign allies, and the U.S. is expecting to support foreign pilot and maintenance training for decades at sites including the 162nd Wing — the Air Guard’s largest fighter wing and the main site for training foreign F-16 training.
The departure of the Iraqi training and its eight F-16s and the addition of the Taiwanese planes will result in a net increase of six F-16s at the 162nd, the study shows.
The proposed increase in flight operations to a projected 31,723 annually would still be fewer than the maximum 40,000 annual operations the 162nd Wing agreed to under a 2014 agreement with the Tucson Airport Authority, the study notes.
The Air Force says proposed construction of a new “entry control facility” is necessary because the existing gate on Valencia does not meet current security standards, and the lack of inspection areas causes significant traffic backups, particularly as reservists arrive for weekend duty.
Tucson airport spokesman David Hatfield generally supports the planned new gate, though officials were still evaluating the environmental assessment.
Construction of the gate will require the demolition of three buildings, including a hangar owned by a private aircraft modification and maintenance company. The Air Force proposes to replace that hangar at another site on the airport, the environmental study said.
The environmental study also covers the renovation of two buildings and reconfiguration of aircraft sunshades to accommodate the Taiwanese training unit, at an estimated cost of $3 million.
HISTORY OF FOREIGN TRAINING
The Air Force Education and Training Command had initially recommended the 162nd Wing in Tucson, Holloman Air Force base in New Mexico, Albuquerque Air National Guard Base and D-M as potential new sites for the Taiwanese training unit.
The candidates were later narrowed down to the 162nd Wing or Davis-Monthan because of their proximity to Arizona training ranges already used by the Taiwanese.
But the 162nd was ultimately chosen because the cost of establishing the training at D-M was much higher and construction of new facilities couldn’t be completed by the desired December 2019 transfer date.
Ron Shoopman, a retired Air Force brigadier general who formerly commanded the 162nd, said it’s not uncommon for different foreign training units to come and go from the base at TIA as they complete and start various training programs.
The Tucson-based Guard has hosted training for 24 nations, including initial training of Taiwanese F-16 pilots in the mid-1990s, said Shoopman, CEO of the Southern Arizona Leadership Council and board member of the Southern Arizona Defense Alliance.
“The 162nd has been known as the premier and foremost expert in training foreign pilots, and the pilots love coming here because of the people here,” Shoopman said.
But the proposed increase in training flights could run into opposition from local residents who say military jets are too noisy for Tucson.
A group of residents sued the Air Force in 2014, after the service found no significant impact from a proposal to significantly increase Operation Snowbird and other visitor pilot training. The plaintiffs alleged the Air Force didn’t properly study noise and other environmental and social impacts of the proposed expansion.
That lawsuit was made moot last fall, when the National Guard Bureau decided to drop funding for the Operation Snowbird tenant unit at D-M, and the parties agreed to dismiss the suit.
One of the plaintiffs in the Operation Snowbird lawsuit, Tucson resident Gary Hunter, said though he was not familiar with the Guard’s plan to shift the Taiwanese training to Tucson, F-16 flights should be limited because they are too loud to fly over the city.
“Pilot training is important to the defense of America, but training F-16 pilots over Tucson’s residential neighborhoods is not appropriate,” Hunter said, citing noise and health concerns.
Though the 162nd Wing and D-M both so far have been passed over as bases for the F-35, the Air Force is currently working on an environmental impact statement on basing the first Air Force Reserve squadron of F-35s at D-M.
But D-M is only being studied as an alternative site, since the Air Force in January chose Naval Air Station Joint Reserve Base Fort Worth as the preferred location.
Contact senior reporter David Wichner at firstname.lastname@example.org or 573-4181. On Twitter: @dwichner.