A photo illustration depicts an A-10 Thunderbolt II firing a laser-guided rocket. A bill introduced in Congress on Wednesday, May 17, 2023, would temporarily pause planned retirements of aging aircraft at Air National Guard bases around the country.

A photo illustration depicts an A-10 Thunderbolt II firing a laser-guided rocket. A bill introduced in Congress on Wednesday, May 17, 2023, would temporarily pause planned retirements of aging aircraft at Air National Guard bases around the country. (Samuel King/U.S. Air Force)

(Tribune News Service) —  A bipartisan group of lawmakers introduced a bill in the House on Wednesday that would temporarily pause planned retirements of aging aircraft at Air National Guard bases around the country, including the A-10 squadron at Selfridge Air National Guard base in Michigan.

The legislation, led by U.S. Reps. Elissa Slotkin, D-Lansing, John James, R-Farmington Hills, and Don Bacon, R-Nebraska, would impose the retirement freeze until the U.S. Air Force produces a 10-year plan for replacing legacy airframes like the A-10, one for one, with next-generation aircraft at the 25 Air National Guard bases around the country.

"The idea is that we believe that there should be a more significant fighter capability into the future, and, of course, Selfridge Air National Guard base would like to compete for that fighter mission in the future," Slotkin told The Detroit News. "But we can't do that unless we understand what the Air Force's recapitalization plan is."

The bill comes amid a bipartisan effort by Michigan's congressional delegation and state leaders to secure another fighter mission to eventually replace Selfridge's A-10s, which are expected to be retired in the next decade, if not sooner.

The A-10 mission is the backbone of the Harrison Township base, which marks its 106th anniversary this year and supports an estimated 5,000 jobs in the community, according to state figures.

The push to retire A-10s is part of an Air Force effort to reduce the top line number of fighter aircraft across the service, with leaders this year proposing to divest, for example, an additional 42 A-10s in its fiscal 2024 budget. Last year, lawmakers let the Pentagon to divest 21 A-10s based in Indiana while blocking divestment of the oldest and least capable F-22s.

"What this bipartisan group is saying is, 'No, we think it should be a replacement fighter mission, not a reduction, and we'll stand fast for your plan,'" Slotkin said. "There's no guarantees that anything will end up at Selfridge, but we at least want to compete for those future fighter missions."

The bill's original co-sponsors include Reps. Jason Crow, D-Colorado; C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, D-Maryland; and Doug Lamborn, R-Colorado. Slotkin, Bacon and Lamborn all serve on the House Armed Services Committee, which crafts the annual defense policy bill that Slotkin and her colleagues aim to attach the bill to.

Bacon, a Nebraska Republican, is a retired Air Force brigadier general who previously served as wing commander at Ramstein Air Base and Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska. In a statement, he noted the Air National Guard is no longer the strategic reserve it was in the 1980s and '90s.

"These units deploy globally to meet combatant commander requirements while simultaneously defending the homeland. We must ensure the most important part of our fighter force — the airmen — are retained as fighter recapitalization decisions are made," Bacon said.

"Every pilot and aircraft maintainer matters, and our nation simply cannot afford continued loss of these highly trained personnel."

The Air Force did not immediately respond Wednesday for a request for comment on the legislation.

Lawmakers say a next-generation fighter mission like the F-15EX or F-35 would help ensure that Selfridge would stay open long term and remain part of the community.

"Michigan is a military powerhouse and Selfridge Air National Guard Base is its crown jewel," James said in a statement. "My district has long been a strong advocate of replacing the current A-10 Thunderbolts with a next generation fighter. I will not rest until Selfridge is home to a mission worthy of its stature and strategic position."

The Air Force last month made final its decision to skip over Selfridge to base its international training center for the F-35 fighter aircraft in Arkansas at Ebbing Air National Guard Base. That decision had been widely anticipated after an initial recommendation in 2021, but was still disappointing to Michigan officials. The Air Force has also cut its procurement plan for the F-15EX.

In the meantime, Michigan is moving ahead with planned improvements at Selfridge, including putting $28 million in federal money toward a new maintenance hangar there that could accommodate larger aircraft like the F-15EX.

That two-year project is the first of eight planned projects intended to prepare the air base for a future fighter jet mission, Sen. Gary Peters, D-Bloomfield Township, said Monday. Peters secured the money for the hangar in the 2021 defense policy bill.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer previously pledged nearly $100 million in state tax dollars to upgrade Selfridge facilities.

Slotkin noted that Michigan's delegation has taken steps to show off Selfridge's facilities and features — including northern Michigan's uninterrupted training airspace — to Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall, including when he visited Selfridge last summer.

During that trip, Kendall commented on the kinds of things that the Pentagon needs to see at bases where they place future fighter missions, Slotkin said.

"And so we are attempting to make those upgrades and investments so that we are as attractive and sexy as possible to the U.S. Air Force," said Slotkin, who is running for the U.S. Senate.

"It's a hugely important mission ... not only important from a military perspective, but it really is important from an economic perspective, particularly to Macomb County."

(c)2023 The Detroit News

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