MARYSVILLE, Calif. — Leanna Whiteley took a telephone order for a plate of chicken enchiladas, then listed her ties to Beale Air Force Base.
Her grandparents work and shop there. Casa Carlos, the downtown Marysville restaurant where she waitresses, has long catered to Beale families. She has a friend on Beale’s flight line who works on its fleet of U-2 spy planes.
In rural Yuba and Sutter counties, about an hour’s drive north of Sacramento, Beale Air Force Base is as much a part of the area’s identity as the Sutter Buttes. For the economically struggling region, Beale is a lifeline.
So when the Defense Department last month announced plans to retire the Beale-based fleet of U-2 spy planes starting in 2016 in favor of drones to save money, people began to worry. As many as 1,070 people attached to the Marysville-area base and its U-2 mission – maintainers, pilots, contractors and medical personnel – could be affected if the spy plane is mothballed, according to federal and state officials.
“A lot of businesses here are struggling as it is,” said Nicole Elizalde of Yuba City, behind the counter at the Rent-a-Center in downtown Marysville.
Storefronts change in Marysville, but few businesses take hold. The old tavern on D Street is now a gym; the old bookstore now a Rent-A-Center. The historic Hotel Marysville still sits, derelict and abandoned, in the center of town. The city’s latest economic development plan urges Marysville, once again, to “Bounce Back.”
Connections to the military run deep here. Many know, work or go to school with someone stationed at Beale. Others are veterans or hail from military families who settled in the area after their Air Force service ended. Some still recall Beale’s glory days when pilots set supersonic speed records aboard sleek SR-71 Blackbirds cruising miles above the Earth.
The base has shrunk considerably from its late-20th century heyday, but any drawdown still has the potential to hurt everything from restaurants to grocery stores to schoolyards in a region where the jobless rate already tops 13 percent.
“It’s something that needs to be said,” said Craig Guensler, superintendent of Wheatland School District in south Yuba County, where half of his schools’ students are children of Beale families. “It’s a huge impact on a community as well as a base.”
A 2011 Beale report pegged the base’s economic impact at $426.6 million, including more than $54 million in pay to civilian workers and another $80.4 million tied to job creation.
The proposed cuts, along with the rest of the fiscal year 2015 defense budget, must still be approved by Congress. Early reactions suggest the proposal will face pushback from House members.
In all, 33 Lockheed U-2 Dragon Ladies call Beale their home base – 31 assigned to the Air Force, two to NASA. The glider-like high-altitude spy plane traces its history to the height of the Cold War and has been a mainstay of Beale’s long-standing reconnaissance and humanitarian mission for decades.
But drones like the RQ-4 Global Hawk that also operates out of Beale, have become the new generation of reconnaissance, as much for their cost and durability as their performance in the skies.
The Defense Department in recent years had recommended saving the U-2 when it was believed to be less expensive to operate and maintain than the unmanned RQ-4. But Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel in February concluded that “with its greater range and endurance, the Global Hawk makes a better high-altitude reconnaissance platform for the future.”
“The Air Force has long maintained that both platforms have their unique strengths, and they are in many ways complementary,” said Beale spokeswoman 2nd Lt. Siobhan Bennett. “We simply can’t afford to keep both.”
Hard choices are being made at a Defense Department pivoting from 13 years of war footing. Hagel is attempting to balance proposed deep defense cuts with national security in a world he described in his 2015 budget preview as “growing more volatile, more unpredictable, and in some instances, more threatening to the United States.”
U.S. Rep. John Garamendi, D-Walnut Grove, and a member of the House Armed Services Committee, said no Beale U-2s or personnel will ship out in the near-term, calling Beale “fundamental” to the Air Force mission. Garamendi, who visited Beale airmen and their commanders in January, added that he hoped any new reconnaissance platforms would be based at Beale.
That next generation of large-scale, high-altitude drone could be in the skies as early as next year. Aviation Week in December revealed details of a secret project by Northrop Grumman. The RQ-180, designed for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions, could be operational by 2015, according to the report.
Beale Air Force Base would appear to be a likely site to land the RQ-180. Aviation Week said the unmanned spycraft will fulfill the stealthy, high-altitude reconnaissance mission last performed in 1998 by the now-retired Lockheed SR-71, a manned airplane based for years at Beale.
Guensler, the Wheatland schools superintendent, pays close attention to what happens at Beale, and his radar is attuned to talk of the U-2’s future. Wheatland, a 15-minute drive from Beale, has seen the impact of losing services out of Beale before.
Only Travis Unified School District, which serves Travis Air Force Base and surrounding areas in Solano County, teaches more children of military personnel in Northern California, Guensler said.
“We service all of the students who live on Beale Air Force Base. Everything is kind of up in the air if (the Defense Department) doesn’t replace the U-2 with (unmanned) airplanes,” Guensler said. “If they just took the program away, it would impact us.”
Because military and other federal installations do not pay property taxes to local jurisdictions, school districts that educate military students receive so-called impact aid to make up the lost revenue, Guensler said. Impact aid made up 15 percent of the nearly $16 million in Wheatland School District revenue in 2012-2013, according to a district audit. The state also pays the district based on how many students attend.
“We’re getting a double whammy when a military family leaves. If we have a loss of both state and federal funding, that’s a big problem,” Guensler said.
The proposal to shut down the venerable U-2s troubles state Assemblyman Dan Logue, R-Marysville, who recalls the rounds of military base closures in the late 1980s through early 2000s that shuttered Mather and McClellan air force bases and the Sacramento Army Depot.
“This is the cornerstone to our economy – Beale Air Force Base,” said Logue, who represents Yuba and Sutter counties. “Everybody is concerned about the (drawdown) of personnel at Beale.”
“You look at a hit like that and it would be devastating,” he added. “There would be a ripple effect not just in Yuba-Sutter, but in Nevada and Sacramento counties” where many Beale personnel, civilian workers and their families also live, work, shop and learn.
At Beale, Bennett said her office has been busy fielding calls about the U-2 Dragon Lady’s future and what that means for Beale.
Bennett couldn’t speak to the proposed defense budget, but said Beale airmen continue to work both the U-2 and Global Hawk missions.
“Given that the decision hasn’t occurred, we’re just executing the mission,” Bennett said. “We will execute and support the mission until otherwise authorized.”
At a base where the unofficial motto is “In God we trust, all others we monitor,” Bennett has another credo.
“We don’t work on proposals,” she said. “We work on definites.”