By Chad Selweski, The Macomb Daily
POSTED: 03/12/14, 5:52 PM EDT
The future of Selfridge Air National Guard Base took a dramatic turn Wednesday as a new Air Force plan called for the elimination of the A-10 aircraft at the Harrison Township facility in exchange for the addition of KC-135 mid-air refueling planes.
The proposal would retire the base’s 18 A-10 Thunderbolts in fiscal year 2017 and then mitigate the damage to Selfridge’s viability by doubling the number of KC-135 tankers to 16. The change would mean the loss of 275 Air National Guard positions and 85 full-time civilian and Air Force jobs.
Selfridge officials expressed concern because the base has featured a fighter aircraft mission throughout its 96-year history and the move toward a small contingent of refueling planes raises worries about the future of Michigan’s largest military installation.
“It is critical to maintain both refueling and fighter capabilities to preserve the crown jewel of Macomb County,” said the new base commander, Col. Philip R. Sheridan. “I have some very real fears that if what is proposed by the Air Force does in fact take place at Selfridge, we start to call into question the future of Selfridge as a military air base.”
In his Pentagon budget proposal unveiled last month, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel called for the elimination of the nation’s entire 1970s-era fleet of A-10s. Since then, congressional representatives from Michigan have fretted about what aircraft, if any, might fill the void at Selfridge.
The Air Force hopes to retire all 326 A-10 Thunderbolts at a savings of about $3.7 billion.
Carl Levin, chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee, and Rep. Candice Miller, who lives within 200 feet of the base’s southern boundary, have said he Air Force will face stiff opposition from Congress when it makes the case that the A-10 is outdated.
A study mandated by Congress in 2012 by the National Commission on the Structure of the Air Force recommended the Air Force place greater reliance on the economically efficient Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve units to lower overall military personnel costs and produce a more ready and capable force.
As a result, Miller said the new Air Force plan calling for tradeoffs of aircraft at various U.S. bases “presents both negative and positive implications that must be considered carefully by Congress.”
The new plan, said the Harrison Township Republican, would mean job losses and a smaller role for Selfridge but it “is certainly better than the situation in which we began the budget cycle last year when the Air Force was calling for the elimination of the A-10 mission at Selfridge without any plan to replace them or to continue to utilize the talents of the highly skilled men and women who serve in the Michigan Air National Guard.”
Selfridge has served as a home on the U.S.-Canadian border to all five branches of the military (including the Coast Guard). In recent years, with Miller’s help, the sprawling lakefront facility has become a home for the Customs and Border Protection, Border Patrol and other Department of Homeland Security agencies.
The effort to expand the historic base’s utility was capped by the addition of a high-tech monitoring center that links the DHS with local law enforcement agencies.
In a press release, the Air Force said the details of Hagel’s Pentagon overhaul calls for divesting entire aircraft fleets in favor of multi-role aircraft – such as the F-16 fighter jet and the upcoming F-35 aircraft — that can deliver a variety of capabilities in war situations. Retiring entire fleets, Air Force officials said, will save billions of dollars versus millions of dollars in efficiencies achievable in alternative plans.
Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James said: “This force structure plan balances capability, readiness and capacity and prioritizes global, long-range capabilities and multi-role platforms required to operate in a highly-contested environment.”
Yet on Capitol Hill the A-10, affectionately known as the “Warthog,” has considerable support because the planes are currently stationed in a variety of states, mostly under National Guard operations. Senators and House members on both sides of the aisle are expected to press the Air Force on how they would meet low-altitude, close air support for combat troops without the A-10.
Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno has said the low-flying A-10 performed “incredibly well” in Iraq and Afghanistan, where its mission was to protect ground troops with bombs and rotary machine guns and perform its traditional role as a “tank buster.”
But Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh has said other aircraft can provide ground support and also perform other missions. Welsh considers the A-10 a one-dimensional weapon that is obsolete.
Sgt. Dan Heaton, a spokesman for Selfridge’s 127th Wing, said it’s unclear if the 107th Fighter Squadron, — a unit formed decades ago known as the “Red Devils” – would continue to exist if KC-135s become the only aircraft on the base. The 107th takes care of the A-10s while the 171st Air Refueling Squadron flies the eight Kc-135s.
Heaton said base offiers are confident that community support for Selfridge could sway the Air Force plans as the federal budget process moves forward.
When the military brass in 2012 attempted to put the 107th Fighter Squadron at Selfridge and what was then 21 to 24 A-10s on the chopping block, the proposal united Macomb County’s elected officials and business community to oppose the plan. The Selfridge Base Community Council coordinated a lobbying campaign and Gov. Rick Snyder, Oakland County Prosecutor L. Brooks Patterson and Detroit’s then-Mayor Dave Bing joined the fight, which proved successful in 2013.