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Gov. Charlie Baker, left, greets U.S. Rep. Richard E. Neal prior to the ceremonial groundbreaking for the new Taxiway Sierra at Westfield-Barnes Regional Airport on May 27, 2021.
Gov. Charlie Baker, left, greets U.S. Rep. Richard E. Neal prior to the ceremonial groundbreaking for the new Taxiway Sierra at Westfield-Barnes Regional Airport on May 27, 2021. (Leon Nguyen, The Republican/TNS)

WESTFIELD, Mass. (Tribune News Service) — A Pentagon team evaluated Barnes Air National Guard Base, the Westfield-Barnes Regional Airport and the city itself last week as a possible base for the next-generation of F-35A Lightning II fighter jets.

Last summer, Barnes Air National Guard Base and its 104th Fighter Wing was included on a short list of candidates for new aircraft to replace its aging F-15C fleet. The possibilities are the better F-15EX planes or the latest F-35As.

The Air Force says it will replace the current F-15 fighters at Barnes and at other bases — Fresno Yosemite Airport in California and Naval Air Station Joint Reserve Base New Orleans — with either F-15EX planes or, preferably, the F-35As.

The stakes are high.

Getting the F-35 would guarantee Barnes’ role and guard against base closures and cutbacks for decades.

“This week’s site evaluation is the crucial next step in bringing these fighters to Barnes Air National Guard Base and Westfield,” said state Sen. John Velis, D- Westfield. “It is my job as the chairman of Veterans and Federal Affairs to ensure that our Commonwealth’s military bases are national leaders, which means zealously advocating for why Barnes is the best suited for these F-35s.”

The 104th’s job is to have armed fighter jets ready to scramble over the Northeast in response to any airborne threat. The unit is responsible for protecting a quarter of the nation’s population and over one-third of its gross domestic product.

Christopher Willenborg, manager of Barnes Regional Airport, said this week he was contributing to the evaluation from the civilian side. But he said details must come from from the Air Force, which has itself been reluctant to discuss the evaluation.

But the F-35 itself is a controversial aircraft with a projected cost of $1.6 trillion for the lifetime of the program, a project already beset with delays, engine fires, peeling insulation and other setbacks.

In May, House Armed Services Chairman U.S. Rep. Adam Smith, D- Wash., told a Brookings Institution panel that the program is underdelivering, asking if there was a way for the Pentagon to cut its losses and calling the F-35 “rathole.”

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.

Mayor Donald Humason said the military’s presence at Barnes helps secure funding and resources other airports can’t get, including a staffed tower with air traffic control. That makes it easier for employers like the Gulfstream Aerospace Corp. company-owned maintenance facility to locate and to grow in Westfield.

The site evaluation was comprehensive involving every program, facility and piece of equipment and all levels of the 104th chain of command both with the Air Force and the state, said Master Sgt. Lindsey Watson, the base’ public affairs spokeswoman.

“They look at everything,” she said.

She described it as every inspection and evaluation base undergoes, but all done at one time.

Official word on the results will likely take months, she said.

The community is under evaluation as well. One of the Air Force criteria is community support for the unit and its mission.

Westfield’s been working to put its best face forward, including the groundbreaking last month for a $4.7 million taxiway and ramp project attended by U.S. Rep. Richard E. Neal, D- Springfield, House Ways and Means chairman; Gov. Charlie Baker and Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito.

Baker met earlier in May at the Pentagon with top civilian leadership from the Biden administration and uniformed leadership in a position to make F-35 decisions.

The state through MassDevelopment, which is its economic development financing arm, has spent $20 million at Barnes over the last seven years from the Military Bond Bill.

The state’s spent just more than $30 million total in that time from the bond bill at all six Massachusetts military bases.

At Barnes, work included:

—A $9 million runway resurfacing effort in 2014.

—Almost $1 million in energy efficiency improvements in 2015.

—$4.5 million for a new taxiway, “Taxiway Sierra.”

—A commitment of another $4.5 million for a new gate and entry point that will be Anti-Terrorism Force Protection Compliant. That gate, the 104th has said, is a requirement for the F-35 and would resemble the gates to the Connecticut Guard bases at Bradley International Airport.

©2021 Advance Local Media LLC.

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