Air station's future tied to decision on new fighter jets

Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort would be vulnerable to closure if the Navy adopts a plan being pushed by some near a North Carolina base on where to assign 13 new Joint Strike Fighter squadrons,the air station's commanding officer told a gathering of state and military officials Tuesday.

"If we only receive two pilot training squadrons, the air station would have a significantly smaller footprint," said Col. John Snider. "And smaller is not good when it comes to the (Base Realignment and Closure Commission). I believe it would make the air station susceptible (to closure.)"

Snider was among commanders of 10 South Carolina bases who attended Gov. Mark Sanford's annual meeting with military leaders Tuesday at MCAS Beaufort. For the past five years, Sanford has met with the commanders and members of the S.C. Military Base Task Force to discuss issues affecting the state's installations.

During the meeting, Sanford became the latest politician to support the Navy's proposal to base three operational squadrons and two pilot-training squadrons at MCAS Beaufort. The proposal was contained in a report released last month detailing how the Navy might divvy up 13 new squadrons between MCAS Beaufort and MCAS Cherry Point, N.C.

"If we do get that alternative, (MCAS Beaufort) would have a good mix of training and operational squadrons, which we think could be important when the next round of BRAC rolls around," Sanford said. "It makes the base much more viable in the long-term."

Some North Carolina officials, including Gov. Bev Perdue and Sen. Kay Hagan, are pushing for an alternative that would assign all 11 active-duty squadrons to Cherry Point and only two pilot training squadrons to MCAS Beaufort.

"They're leading with their best punch," Sanford said. "They seem to be going with the strategy where you ask for the whole loaf so when you only get half the loaf, you're happy."

The Joint Strike Fighter, also known as the F-35, will replace the F-18 Hornets now flown at the air station, as well as other fighter and attack jets flown by the Marines and other military branches.

Other state bases that could receive a version of the F-35 include Shaw Air Force Base in Sumter and McEntire Joint National Guard Base near Eastover. The Air Force is expected to receive 1,763 new fighter jets.

Tuesday's meeting also included discussions about the possibility of building an auxiliary landing field near MCAS Beaufort to help reduce the impact of jet noise on nearby residents, particularly if training squadrons are based here. Beaufort Mayor Billy Keyserling is among the officials who have touted the possibility.

Though he agreed the idea was worth exploring, Snider said the base remained focused on gathering public comment on the report before the Navy makes its final decision in early December.