The House Transportation and Defense Committee approved a memorial Thursday voicing support of the Air Force bringing F-35 joint-strike force jet operations to two bases in Idaho. The jets, which have both stealth and supersonic capabilities, are part of a $300 billion U.S. Department of Defense program to modernize the Air Force fleet.
Both Mountain Home Air Force Base (MHAFB) in Mountain Home and Gowen Field in Boise are being considered as potential homes for the state-of-the-art jets. According to some estimates, the planes would bring with them over $1 billion in economic impact and 3,000 jobs to the Gem state.
In what Col. Bill Richey, a special assistant to Gov. Butch Otter, calls “the great race for where the planes are going to be based,” Idaho looks to be in pretty good shape. According to Richey, MFAHB could provide the Air Force with the best access to the most diverse training grounds in the country. He added that the terrain of the Old Saylor bombing range, which is just south of MFAHB, is similar in many ways to both the desert terrain found in Iraq and the more mountainous terrain found in Afghanistan. The bombing range is also particularly unique, said Richey, in that the area has no real environmental concerns, never suffers from noise complaints from neighbors, and has room to grow. Richey also noted that Idaho weather is also optimal for training because it affords more than 300 flyable days per year.
Lt. Gov. Brad Little testified before the committee, saying that the administration is working hard to bring the planes to Idaho because having them here “will go a long way towards getting the economy of Idaho up to where we would like to see it.” Little said he hopes the additional jobs would help jumpstart the economy, though the programs and jobs wouldn’t arrive until 2013.
According to Little, Idaho is fighting to bring three squadrons –each contains 24 planes - to each base, for a total of new 144 jets for the area. He noted that while MHAFB and Gowen aren’t competing against one another, one could be selected for use by the Air Force and not the other. According to Richey, two different programs are up for grabs for the bases. One program would be for active military operations, for which MFAHB is competing. The other program, for training only, could be stationed at Gowen. The jobs would be split equally between the two programs.
Securing the new jets could be crucial to the longevity of both bases, said Don Dietrich, Otter’s commerce director. Dietrich said that if the two bases can secure the new programs, they would be less likely to be considered for base realignment and closures. Because the security of the jets is of utmost importance to the Air Force, they would have to be stored under cover, which could mean substantial upgrades for both Gowen and MFAHB. Dietrich said the Air Force could invest as much as $400 million between the two bases in building upgrades.
The memorial will now go before the full House for a vote. If it passes the House, it will move on to the Senate for deliberation.