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Jacksonville's Air National Guard braces for future after missing out on highly-contested F-35 squadron

A Florida Air National Guard crew chief prepares to launch an F-15 for a routine training mission at the 125th Fighter Wing, Jacksonville, Fla., on Aug. 19, 2014.

COURTESY U.S. AIR FORCE

By JOE DARASKEVICH | The Florida Times-Union (Tribune News Service) | Published: January 18, 2018

Members of the senior leadership at Jacksonville’s Air National Guard spent years pushing the importance of bringing a squadron of new F-35 Lightning II jets to the installation to ensure the 125th Fighter Wing’s relevance well into the future.
They found out in December they were passed over. The latest in combat aviation was headed elsewhere.

The U.S. Air Force awarded squadrons of F-35s fighter planes to bases in Montgomery, Ala., and Madison, Wis., on Dec. 21, which meant the people who worked hard to bring them to Jacksonville needed to start thinking about a plan B.

What that plan will mean for the future of the base at Jacksonville International Airport is mostly a mystery, although the Air Force insists it will need a mixture of fourth and fifth generation fighters well into the future.

“We are a little disappointed,” said Col. Brian Bell with the Florida Air National Guard. “We thought we were the best choice for the new platform.”

He said more importantly than that it seems like the Air Force made the decision with the nation’s best interest in mind moving forward from a strategic standpoint — unlike the last time a National Guard installation was awarded a squadron of F-35s

Bell said the overwhelming support from local, state and federal politicians definitely helped get the base to the final round of the selection process, but this time was different than when a National Guard base in Burlington, Vt., was awarded F-35s in 2013.

“I just have a sense that that was a largely political decision back then, there were a lot of politics involved,” Bell said. “I get a sense this time that the politics stayed out of it a little bit and that the Air Force had the latitude to make the best strategic decisions for what it’s facing for the future.”

Air Force spokeswoman Ann Stefanek said the final decision came down to four factors: mission, capacity, environment and cost.

Bell said it was clear the leading candidates changed several times throughout the process, and in the end Jacksonville was one of three installations that missed out — along with Boise, Idaho and Selfridge, Mich.

“The key message here is that the Air Force is going to continue to fly a mix of both fifth- and fourth-generation fighters into the 2040s,” Stefanek said.

She said she couldn’t speculate on the potential of closing the Jacksonville installation if future rounds of base realignment and closure procedures were to take place. For now, she said, the mission of the Florida Air National Guard will remain unchanged going forward.

“Jacksonville will continue to be a very important location because of the capability that currently exists,” Stefanek said. “We don’t foresee that changing.”

Bell said there are two ways to look at the fact that Jacksonville will continue to use the antiquated F-15 Eagles instead of a brand new aircraft with seemingly limitless capabilities.

He said a sour grapes approach would be the viewpoint that the Air Force chose to upgrade two squadrons that currently use newer jets than the ones in Jacksonville. It’s true that the F-16s in Alabama and Wisconsin are slightly newer than they F-15s in Jacksonville, but the F-16 is also a single-engine jet compared to the twin-engine F-15 and F-35.

On the other hand, Bell said, one can argue the Air Force replaced the newer jets because the strategic importance of the F-15s in Jacksonville is more significant to the defense of the nation than the missions flown out of Alabama and Wisconsin.

“Although it’s a newer air frame in terms of age, the mission is an interdiction mission, which we don’t do,” Bell said of the F-35s. “We are in the air superiority business.”

He said the F-15s are quickly becoming more and more contested in places like Russia and China where they have air spaces with a more robust, integrated air defense system. Instead of those types of flight operations, the mission at the Florida Air National guard is geared toward homeland defense where they aren’t necessarily flying into heavily defended airways.

“The challenge is going to be continuing the life of the air frame itself,” Bell said of the F-15.

Parts are becoming harder to come by for the jets designed in the 1960s and first flown in the 1970s. Bell said most of the F-15s at the 125th Fighter Wing are models from the early to mid 1980s.

The National Guard is no stranger to maintaining older aircraft.

Bell said the Air National Guard has been flying older-model aircraft ever since it was created in 1947 because the newer jets normally go to active-duty Air Force bases.

“Although it would have been nice to get that shiny new F-35, we are definitely in the business of maintaining older legacy air frames, and this one in particular is pretty integral in the nation’s defense,” Bell said.

Stefanek said there are always conversations on the local level about how important it is to move on to the next generation of aircraft technology to keep the installations viable for as long as possible, but the reality is the Air Force needs a mix of capabilities to accomplish the overall mission.

Bell said the F-15s are still near the top of the aviation food chain, but there will be a gap eventually that needs to be filled once there are more fifth- generation fighters in the sky.

He said in the past people have suggested the Air Force develop a more affordable solution to fill that gap by designing a hybrid aircraft that incorporates elements of fourth- and fifth-generation fighters. But that plan was never incorporated.

“We are rapidly approaching the sunset from just a fatigue standpoint on the air frame, and to this point the Air Force really hasn’t laid down a solid plan yet in terms of how they plan to continue the lifespan of the F-15,” Bell said.

Bell said the F-15 will continue to be an extremely capable platform that can dominate the skies for at least another 10 years, but the Air Force will need to figure out a plan after that.

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