Duluth News Tribune: Duluth's 148th Fighter Wing eyes new warplanes
Thanks to the miracle of Photoshop, there exists already in Col. Jon Safstrom's office a framed picture of an F-35 stealth warplane bearing on its tail the bulldog logo of the 148th Fighter Wing.
If the wing commander and other state leaders get their wish, the doctored photograph will give way to a more lasting reality at the Minnesota Air National Guard's Duluth base, and the 148th Fighter Wing will one day house and fly the military's newest jet fighter.
"This is the beginning of the future," Safstrom said from inside 148th Fighter Wing headquarters situated along the base's Viper Drive, "and we want to start as soon as we can."
The 148th, which currently flies F-16s, last week submitted its response to a data call to the National Guard Bureau. The response gives the local guard unit skin in what is expected to be a protracted and political game to be awarded the new fighters. Safstrom described the data call as a "deep dive" detailing the physical attributes of the base that will allow decisionmakers to see how it measures up to the needs and requirements of the F-35.
The rolling-out of the F-35 — also known as the Joint Strike Fighter for the way it is being built to suit multiple branches of the armed services — is "the biggest weapon development program in the world," wrote Forbes magazine in March. It's also the largest acquisition program in the Department of Defense's history, said Sen. John McCain of Arizona at an April congressional hearing examining faults in the program. Fraught with what McCain called "scandal and tragedy," the 15-year development of the F-35 has featured a series of cost overruns, delivery delays and other broken promises to go with software and structural glitches.
Still, the prospect of flying the aircraft as it begins to experience significant jumps in capability excites the local airmen.
Safstrom, his vice commander, Col. Chris Blomquist, and others on base described a proud 67-year tradition for the local unit and when asked if the Duluth unit featured the best fighter pilots in the country, Safstrom said, "We think so."
The latest data call is the first for the F-35 since earlier this decade. So far, only one Air National Guard base in the country — in Burlington, Vt. — has been awarded the aircraft, in addition to a couple of Air Force bases. But it won't be the last call as nearly 2,500 of the aircraft are scheduled to reach the armed forces across the next roughly 20-plus years. The aircraft is being counted on to give the U.S. and, so far, 11 partner countries air superiority until 2070.
Of course, federal defense budgets play a huge role, and getting airplanes sooner ensures a base won't be left without a chair — and without a possible mission once the F-16 is finally retired — as part of an acquisitions race that Safstrom compared to a game of musical chairs.
The 148th will vie with 17 other Air National Guard bases across the country to be among the next two bases selected for the changeover.
Safstrom and Blomquist explained that two Air National Guard bases will be chosen after processing through the National Guard Bureau, Air Combat Command and, finally, the Secretary of the Air Force, who will have ultimate authority to select from a small number of preferred and alternate sites. Those distinctions, Safstrom said, are expected to be unveiled late in the year.
"We want to be on the leading edge," he said, "and we're in good shape."
In addition to having ample hangar space and 8,000 feet of runway large enough to support F-35s, the Duluth air base features millions of dollars in facility upgrades across the past decade and what Rep. Rick Nolan, DFL-Crosby, called an "ace in the hole."
"We fly in the premier airspace in the U.S. for a guard unit," Blomquist said. Safstrom added to the stumping for the local base when he said, "We think of our airspace as a national asset right here in Minnesota."
They outlined large swaths of air up to the Federal Aviation Administration's outer regulatory limit of 50,000 feet that are spread about 300 miles long and 90 to 100 miles wide and include parts of northern Minnesota, Northwestern Wisconsin and into the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. The airspace features relatively light commercial air traffic compared to more urban centers and allows for unfettered training and mission exercises.
"The F-35 will require large airspace," said Ray Klosowski, a Duluth resident with a long and accomplished history in the Air National Guard who was made a Minnesota Aviation Hall of Famer in 2007. "It operates rather independently — more so than current fighters. They'll be flying several miles apart not even looking at each other or seeing each other versus looking outside and seeing a wingman. It's a whole other concept for a fighter like this. They can be miles apart and still be considered formation."
A base poised for anything
On a tour of the Duluth base earlier this month with Capt. Jodi Grayson, the 148th spokeswoman, showed off a new space-age front desk in the base's Operations Building that fronts a massive contoured panel of state-of-the-art display monitors and alternately looks out onto the runway.
Inside a Heritage Room where pilots go to unwind are artifacts and photos from past deployments, to go with rustic wooden stools featuring pilots' "Top Gun"-style names carved into the backs.
Inside the hangar, where technicians work on the 148th's current stable of 22 Block 50 F-16s, sat three of the fighter jets. Two were off to the side while one dominated the center of the cavernous workspace. It had its cockpit canopy protected and tape spread across any and all other openings as it beaded water like workout sweat across its surface.
"We just washed it this morning," said Staff Sgt. Brad Hammond, a crew chief.
The unit received the Block 50s in 2010, giving them the most capable F-16s in the U.S. arsenal.
"We're blessed and fortunate to have it here," Hammond said. "The F-16 is an incredible bird."
Hammond aptly described the muscular F-35 as "beefier" than the F-16, capable of more thrust and carrying bulkier missile loads.
"The F-35 is an incredible bird, too," Hammond said.
Klosowski put in 700 hours in the F-16 during his career as an airman, and commanded the 148th from 1989-95 and the Minnesota Air National Guard from 1995-97. He was introduced to the F-35 during a "very unofficial" recent visit to Luke Air Force Base in Arizona — one of only three U.S. outfits to have received the aircraft to date. Having read all the bad press, Klosowski came away with a favorable opinion and was reminded of the F-15, C-17 and B-1 — all supposed lemons at one time that went on to prove themselves.
Klosowski described the 148th's highly specialized SEAD mission — standing for Suppression of Enemy Air Defense. Any such unit would want "top-notch" aircraft, he said.
"They go in and suppress the surface-to-air missile threat when other (allied) airplanes are in position to attack," he said. "They are also trained to drop air-to-ground munitions, dropping any kind of guided munitions, trained for night attack, trained to dogfight — if they get into a situation where they're attacked by enemy aircraft they are trained to engage — the whole gamut."
The recent weekday tour of the base revealed a spartan presence. Halls were quiet and grounds were undisturbed by foot traffic. There were no flights as missions have diminished significantly since 300 members deployed to Osan Air Base in South Korea a month ago, taking 19 of the base's fighter jets with them.
Lt. Col. Curt Grayson, commander of the deployed force, said in April, "We're obviously there to keep the peace and show a presence," during a time of escalating tension with North Korea.
The 148th figures to return home at the end of four months as part of a rotation of units supplying a show of air might. Capt. Jodi Grayson, the 148th spokeswoman, said normally the Duluth base crawls with 400 everyday members, swelling to 1,000 on drill weekends. The base flies daily training and operational missions when it's at its peak.
Sen. Al Franken said the Minnesota National Guard recently made an impressive case to him for housing the F-35 at the 148th.
"The 148th Fighter Wing is a first-class unit composed of some of the finest airmen in the country," he told the News Tribune in a written statement. "I will strongly support the endeavor in order to enhance Minnesota National Guard capabilities in Duluth."
'The right thing to do'
In assessing the country's Air Guard bases for F-35 suitability, points will be applied for
merits and bases will be "racked and stacked" based on total points, Blomquist explained.
The margin between the top bases figures to be thin and in the end it's anybody's guess as to what the deciding factors will be from there, he said.
It may be that the Duluth base is left to sharpen and maintain its F-16 acumen for the next several years, having already become familiar with an aircraft that sees its shelf life extended with each hurdle encountered by the new Lockheed Martin-manufactured F-35.
At a ballpark $37 million per plane, the F-16s are a fortune in flight but economical when compared to F-35s at double the cost. One thought is that decisionmakers might view the 148th's stable of pilots as too gifted at handling the current best batch of F-16s to mess with success. Safstrom described the general profile of the 148th pilot as being one of a retired Air Force veteran experiencing the second part of his career with the Air Guard.
On the other hand, an F-35 hasn't yet had a new pilot fly it.
"Everybody flying the F-35 is a former fighter pilot with experience," Klosowski said. "That's what the Air Guard is: pilots with experience."
Nolan said he'll "be going to the Pentagon and meeting with everyone to push for this thing."
"This is really important for us and our community of Duluth," he said.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar added in an email that she fought to bring the 148th its new F-16s and that "now it is time for the 148th to receive the F-35."
"As the city's seventh-largest employer, the 148th generates over $90 million in activity annually for Duluth's economy," Klobuchar wrote the News Tribune. "I will continue to advocate for the 148th and its servicemembers so the base remains strong for generations to come."
Like generational descriptions for smartphones, the F-35 is being called a fifth-generation fighter for its video screen cockpit, computer integration and customized, protective glass projection helmet that makes it far more advanced than the switch-laden jet fighters that came before it. According to Klosowski, it may end up being the last of its kind "with everything going to drones and remote control."
"The right thing to do," he said, "is to push hard now for the F-35."