The future of Madison’s Air National Guard base was bolstered Thursday with the announcement that it will become home to a squadron of $100 million F-35 fighter jets.
The first of the 18 planes is scheduled to arrive at Truax Field on Madison’s North Side early in 2023 after an environmental impact study that will include a public comment period as it examines everything from jet engine noise to air emissions to social and economic impacts.
Gov. Scott Walker said he looked forward to hearing the “sound of freedom” flying over the Madison area.
Local politicians and business leaders have been campaigning to win the high-tech aircraft as a way of securing jobs and other economic benefits.
“I congratulate the dedicated men and women of the 115th Fighter Wing,” said U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Madison. “I have been proud to play a lead role within the Wisconsin Congressional delegation advocating for the 115th, and I am pleased that the Air Force has recognized the tremendous strategic, geographic and economic capabilities that Truax offers.”
Baldwin’s Republican counterpart, Sen. Ron Johnson, of Oshkosh, said the jets would benefit all of southern Wisconsin.
“I look forward to Wisconsin playing a major role as the Air Force modernizes and enhances its capabilities to keep America safe and secure,” Johnson said.
Huge cost overruns plagued the F-35 program early on. As production picked up, the 2014 per-plane price of $108 million began dropping and hit $94 million recently, a Pentagon procurement office spokesman said Thursday. A year ago, when President-elect Donald Trump blasted the costs, independent analysts said when all costs were included the price tag was closer to $138 million.
Last month, the U.S. Government Accountability Office reported that 250 F-35s had been deployed with plans to triple the number before 2022, but the effort is plagued by problems including the aircraft’s inability to meet performance standards in trials, and that shortages of spare parts kept planes grounded 22 percent of the time.
Training grounds seen as advantage
The Greater Madison Chamber of Commerce and a support group for the base, Badger Air Community Council, raised money to push for Truax.
“We are extremely proud and excited about today’s announcement for the 1,200 airmen of the 115th Fighter Wing, as well as for Greater Madison’s economy,” chamber president Zach Brandon said.
Truax employs 445 men and women full time in addition to 700 Guard members who participate in periodic drills. The chamber has estimated the base delivers $100 million in annual economic impact. It also provides emergency services for the adjacent Dane County Regional Airport, and area colleges benefit because Guard members receive government tuition support, Brandon said.
Mayor Paul Soglin predicted the new aircraft will maintain Truax’s economic stability for decades.
Community support and Truax’s relatively short distance from the training range at Volk Field were important selling points, said Jeff Wiegand, recently retired commander of the 115th and Badger Air Community Council executive director.
The Air Force announced last year that the base was one of 18 Air National Guard locations being considered for the growing fleet of F-35 jets. The field was narrowed to five finalists in December 2016.
Truax now is home to F-16 jets that are among the oldest still in operation. Being selected as an F-35 site should help protect Truax when the military re-evaluates its needs. The base was scrutinized in 2005 during the last national base realignment process.
Louder or quieter
Air Force studies show F-35s can be louder or quieter than F-16s depending on flight paths, use of afterburners and other factors. The federally mandated environmental impact studies usually include detailed projections of how loud the F-35s will sound in various locations around an air field.
Madison residents, especially those on the East Side, have often complained about the roar of commercial and military jets. The county airport and the Air National Guard have said they take steps to minimize noise.
The governor said he didn’t expect F-35s to produce substantially more or louder noise around Truax Field.
“As someone who lives in earshot of this, I’ve got to tell you, it’s not that frequent,” Walker said. The Executive Residence in Maple Bluff is about 7 miles southwest of Truax.
Walker also said the fighter jets and $20 million in federal dollars to upgrade the base would be like “pouring jet fuel” on the Madison-area economy.
Walker said no taxpayer money was offered to persuade the Air Force, and he would not say how much money was spent lobbying. He said the lobbying was largely done by the state’s federal delegation.
The Chamber of Commerce contracted with two advisers with military expertise in Washington, D.C., and raised $100,000 for its efforts to bring the fighters to Madison in conjunction with the Badger Air Community Council.
The Air Force on Thursday announced another new F-35 site, Dannelly Field in Montgomery, Alabama.
“Putting F-35s at these two Air National Guard bases continues our transition into the next generation of air superiority,” said Air Force Chief of Staff David L. Goldfein.
The other three bases announced in December 2016 — Gowen Field, Boise, Idaho; Jacksonville Air National Guard Base in Florida; and Selfridge Air National Guard Base, Detroit — are considered “reasonable alternatives” to Truax and Dannelly.
State Journal reporter Molly Beck contributed to this report.
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