South Carolina bases still in running for jets

Vermont remains the preferred location but a decision has not yet been made

rburris@thestate.comSeptember 27, 2013 

While Vermont remains the Air Force's preferred location to base 18-24 new F-35 fighter jets, South Carolina military sites at Sumter and in Eastover remain in contention, recent reports indicate.

Shaw Air Force Base in Sumter and the McEntire Joint National Guard Base in Eastover both are still under consideration to be the military's bed-down location for the first squadron of the new stealth jets.

Other military installations under consideration by the Air Force include the Jacksonville Air Guard Station in Florida, Mountain Home Air Force Base in Idaho, and Hill Air Force Base in Utah.

The Burlington Air Guard Station in Vermont has been the Air Force's preferred site to locate the new fighters from the beginning, but the Air Force recently reviewed the Environmental Impact Statement supporting that initial determination and issued a revised statement this week.

"The latest stuff that I have read is absolutely nothing different than what has been talked about for the past year," said retired Maj. Gen. William "Dutch" Holland , Sumter Base Defense Committee executive director on Friday. "The community up there is divided."

Holland, South Carolina Military Task Force former executive coordinator, noted that while protests by some homeowners in Vermont had arisen that the F-35s would be too noisy, the larger community there supports basing the fighters at Burlington.

Published reports also have been widely circulated in the New England media that the Air Force's initial environmental statement was fraught with misinformation and falsehoods.

Vermont senior Sen. Patrick Leahy , a Demcocrat, posted the Air Force's summary of the revised EIS on his website Wednesday.

"An executive summary was not produced for this iteration of the EIS because there were no substantive changes made from what was already published in the (prior) revised draft EIS executive summary disseminated to you in May 2013," a sentence from the report on Leahy's website stated.

The F-35s could replace the aging F-16 squadron of fighter jets currently at McEntire and help insulate the base and the 1,500 jobs it support against new realignment and base closure decisions.

Failure to land the new stealthy fighters could make McEntire vulnerable to base closing in the future. In the past it has been in danger of being absorbed by nearby Shaw Air Force Base. But since the last round of base closings in 2005, it has been deemed a joint national guard base with the S.C. Army National Guard, which has built extensive new facilities there. It is one of the few air bases on the East Coast that is isolated from nearby development, called encroachment - a very germane issue in Vermont.

The Air Force has said it would decide this fall where to base the new F-35s.

"We in South Carolina are more than prepared to take those airplanes and to be the bed-down area for those, if they don't go to Vermont," Holland said. "But we're also ready to wait until our time is here, because we know how good we are."

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