The Air Force’s decision to station next-generation F-35 fighter planes (pictured above) at Air National Guard bases in Wisconsin and Alabama, rather than the Selfridge Air National Guard Base in Macomb County, was described today as a “bitter defeat” in a press release put out by the Selfridge command.
The release also raised the specter that partisan Washington politics might have led to Selfridge’s snub after emerging as one of five finalists for the newest home for the F-35A fighter jets.
A Selfridge insider said that freshman Congressman Paul Mitchell, R-Dryden, never engaged in the fight for a Selfridge location for F-35s yet released a statement today expressing his disappointment with the Air Force decision. Mitchell succeeded Candice Miller in the 10th Congressional District, which includes the Selfridge base. The Selfridge source said that Sen. Gary Peters lobbied Pentagon officials on Selfridge’s behalf, though his minority status as a Senate Democrat put him at a disadvantage.
The Selfridge press release offered this:
Asked what role politics played in the F-35 equation, Macomb County Executive Mark Hackel acknowledged it may have been involved.
“I know there’s been speculation to that effect. But there was a reason the Wisconsin air base was one of the top five to be considered, just as we were,” Hackel said. “If we had gotten it, you’d hear talk of Michigan receiving it because the state voted for Trump.”
The Air Force selected F-35 locations at Truax Field Air National Guard Base in Wisconsin, home state of House Speaker Paul Ryan, and Dannelly Field in Alabama, where the GOP is trying to maintain deep Red State Republicanism after a Democrat surprisingly won a special Senate election there earlier this month.
Wisconsin, along with Michigan and Pennsylvania, were key to President Trump’s election win in 2016. One day before the Air Force announcement, Trump uncharacteristically and profusely praised Ryan at the White House for his role in getting a $1.5 trillion GOP tax reform plan passed in Congress.
All of these partisan connections may amount to speculation but the Air Force decision against Selfridge may also lay bare the growing political weaknesses and lack of experience within the Michigan congressional delegation. On Capitol Hill, seniority is king.
In recent weeks, Democratic Congressman John Conyers of Detroit, the dean of the House, abruptly resigned amid a sexual harassment scandal after 53 years on Capitol Hill. And another Democratic congressman, Sandy Levin, who represents a large portion of Macomb County, announced his pending retirement after 35 years in Congress.
In 2014, Levin’s brother, Democratic Sen. Carl Levin, a major force on Capitol Hill for many years as chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee and a forceful advocate of Michigan’s defense industry, also bowed out.
With the pending retirement of Congressman David Trott, R-Birmingham, announced after just 2 ½ years in office, Michigan will have three House rookies elected in 2018. That follows the election of last year when two newbie congressmen were elected, Mitchell and Upper Peninsula Republican Jack Bergman. Worse yet, after the 2020 Census, the state is expected to lose one of its 14 House seats due to lagging population gains.
Peters, who succeeded Carl Levin on the Senate Armed Forces Committee, tried to put the best face on the Air Force announcement: “Today’s decision marks the Air Force’s continued commitment to the A-10 (aircraft at) Selfridge, which will continue hosting this extremely important platform. Selfridge is a strong contender for future conversion to the F-35, and I will continue working to ensure the base maintains a fighter mission for years to come.”
Selfridge is home to aging A-10 jets, which have performed well in combat in Afghanistan and Iraq, plus the KC-135 mid-air refueling tankers. The Air Force has routinely and forcefully demonstrated a preference for expanding the F-35’s reach rather than preserving the A-10s placed at numerous locations across the country. Stationing F-35s at Selfridge was widely viewed by state and local officials as a way to solidify the base’s stability after years of speculation that the Pentagon might close the sprawling facility on the Lake St. Clair waterfront.
Macomb County officials had launched an all-out community relations campaign in support of landing the F-35 project, and a study produced by the Michigan Defense Center based in Sterling Heights made the case that Selfridge would be an ideal location.
“Are we disappointed? You bet,” Hackel said. “But down the road, we remain confident Selfridge will be in existence for generations to come.”
Yet, looking down the road could make Selfridge vulnerable to base-closing proposals for years to come. Even the Wisconsin and Alabama bases chosen in this Pentagon competition will not see any F-35s arrive until 2023.
Air Force Chief of Staff David Goldfein said the two selected Air National Guard installations will help continue the military’s transition into the “next generation of air superiority.”
“It helps ensure we can always offer the Commander-in-Chief air power options and be ready to penetrate any enemy air defenses, hold any target at risk, and go when and where the president tells us to go. We’re the options guys,” he said.
“The F-35 is critical to the family of systems we need to accomplish this mission for the nation now and in the future.”