Barnes Air National Guard Base preps for new fighter jets, awaits Pentagon decision
masslive.com May 9, 2022
WESTFIELD, Mass. (Tribune News Service) — Both of the new fighter jets considered for the Air National Guard’s 104th Fighter Wing — the F-35 and the F-15EX — are facing headwinds in Washington while the base at Westfield-Barnes Regional Airport in Massachusetts prepares environmental impact reviews for either aircraft.
For two years, the 104th has been undergoing evaluation by the Air Force to receive new fighter jets to replace its aging fleet of 21 F-15C Eagle aircraft.
Both Christopher J. Willenborg, manager for the civilian side of the airport, and the office of U.S. Rep. Richard E. Neal, D-Springfield, say they expect word from the Pentagon sometime this month or in June.
The National Guard, meanwhile, will say only that it is committed to keeping its aircraft inventory up to date and in keeping with the rest of the Air Force, according to a statement issued by the office of the state’s adjutant general, Maj. Gen. Gary Keefe.
The 104th — with its 1,000 part-time traditional guard members and approximately 500 full-time members — was found to be best suited for either the F-35 or the F-15EX platforms during a recent site survey, the state-level command said late last week.
The Barnes unit and its F-15C Eagles are part of the Air Combat Command with a mission that includes providing homeland security and defense for the northeast U.S. Its pilots and jets have a 24/7 alert mission.
“The base is perfectly located to be fully aligned with the National Defense Strategy’s number one priority of defending the homeland. Barnes’ aerospace alert fighters are the only air defense for the 40 million Americans living in New England and New York,” the state command said in its statement.
In connection with the potential siting of new aircraft, the 104th is also preparing formal environmental impact statements complying with the federal National Environmental Policy Act for both planes, Willenborg said. These statements look at all the environmental concerns, including noise pollution.
He said the community should expect public meetings on environmental impacts sometime after a Pentagon announcement, either late this year or in early 2023.
Noise has been a particular concern at Barnes in the past as the unit has transitioned through aircraft. In Vermont, the F-35s have generated renewed noise complaints after being assigned to the National Guard in Burlington.
The guard base at Barnes will also need, no matter what planes it gets, an upgraded high-security entry gate. A $4.5 million project is proceeding to build one off Southampton Road along Routes 10 and 202 near the intersection with Servistar Industrial Way. That project is in the design stages, according to the state Department of Transportation. The project would include improvements to the intersection and sidewalks.
There have been reports in recent weeks of troubles with both the F-15EX and F-35 programs. Defense-focused media reported some within the Air Force want to cancel the F-15EX program in favor of buying more F-35s. The fiscal 2022 budget calls for 24 F-15EX jets worth a total of $1.4 billion.
Meanwhile, the General Accounting Office issued a report on the F-35 in late April saying that introducing those planes is both going too fast and too slow.
Operational testing of the F-35 continues to be delayed — primarily by holdups in developing an aircraft simulator — even as the Department of Defense goes forward with the purchase of up to 152 aircraft a year, according to a report issued April 25. The more aircraft produced before testing is complete, the more it might cost to retrofit those aircraft if issues are discovered.
If the Department of Defense moves forward as planned, it will have bought a third of all F-35s before determining that the aircraft is ready to move into the full-rate production phase, the General Accounting Office said.
The House Armed Services Committee held a hearing two weeks ago on the Air Force’s fiscal 2023 budget request. Also in Washington, the House Tactical Air and Land Force Subcommittee held a hearing specifically on Fixed-Wing Tactical and Training Aircraft Programs.
According to the Air Force, the service’s fiscal 2023 budget proposal had funding to buy 33 F-35A Lightning II fighters and 24 F-15EX Eagle II fighters as well as 15 KC-46A Pegasus tankers, among other hardware requests.
At the state level, state Sen. John C. Velis, D-Westfield, said through a spokesman that he is still seeking passage of two laws that would help Westfield, and other Bay State military bases, draw Pentagon money. The laws would help military families access schooling and help military spouses get Massachusetts professional licenses, and thus employment, more quickly.
The Pentagon looks for state laws like this before committing dollars and service members, said Velis, himself a member of the U.S. Army Reserve.
The SPEED Act, S2559, passed the state Senate and remains with the House Ways and Means Committee. A related bill filed by Gov. Charlie Baker, Senate Bill 2542, remains in the Joint Committee on Health Care Financing.
The Air Force’ commitment means a lot to Barnes, where the military use ensures there is a staffed air-traffic control tower and money for construction including a recent $4.7 million taxiway project.
The state also funded a $9 million runway resurfacing in 2014 and almost $1 million in energy efficiency improvements in 2015.
Barnes, both a civilian and military installation, has a total economic impact of $236.8 million, according to the airport authority. The total number of jobs, civilian and military, tops 2,100.
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