Monday, February 6, 2006
Stealth Wings May Be Clipped
By Miguel Navrot
Copyright © 2006 Albuquerque Journal; Journal Staff Writer
The Air Force's entire fleet of F-117A stealth jets could be facing retirement a move that would throw the economic welfare of Alamogordo into turmoil.
Today, President Bush's 2007 budget blueprint will be released, and several defense trade publications are saying the F-117 stealth jet could be phased out around the end of the decade.
Holloman base commander Brig. Gen. Kurt Cichowski is scheduled to make an announcement regarding the budget this afternoon at the base. The state's congressional offices are expected to offer statements.
[+] Click for photos from weekJournal File An F-117A Nighthawk stealth fighter taxis at Holloman Air Force Base after returning home from the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
Photos from this week's ABQjournal.com Journal Photos
The nation's fleet of 52 stealth Nighthawks is based at Holloman and played a critical role in both Iraq invasions. The sleek black jets, built a quarter-century ago to evade radar detection, are a familiar sight above Otero County and are the flagship of Holloman.
Base advocates said they fear that retirement of the F-117 could leave a vacuum at Holloman if no replacement is brought to the base.
In a telephone interview Sunday, Bill Burt of the Alamogordo Committee of 50 said, "One out of every two paychecks here is associated with Holloman Air Force Base." He said 1,000 to 2,000 airmen at Holloman are involved with the stealth jet.
Roughly 6,300 military and civilian employees work at Holloman.
Air Force officials would not comment Sunday on whether the Nighthawk will soon be retired to a desert boneyard. More information is expected today after the White House's budget proposal is released.
A base spokesman said last week that it is "premature to speculate" on the potential employment loss at Holloman if the F-117 is retired completely.
"Holloman has never been tied to a particular aircraft," base spokesman Tom Fuller wrote in response to questions from the Journal.
"Many different planes no longer in the active inventory have flown here, yet Holloman still remains," Fuller wrote.
Keeping the entire Nighthawk fleet at Holloman has been a priority of New Mexico's two senators. In the previous year, the Air Force has suggested trimming the 52-jet fleet by 10 for an estimated savings of $75 million over five years.
The retirement of the entire fleet has never been formally proposed.
New Mexico's congressional delegation, opposing any cuts, maintains the jets are needed for national security and points to the deployment record of the jets.
In addition to dropping the first precision explosives on Baghdad in both Gulf Wars, the stealths were deployed last year to the Korean peninsula as nuclear tensions heightened.
The Air Force is trying to update its combat might with the F-22A Raptor fighter. The stealthy Raptor, estimated to cost as much as $330 million apiece, is capable of supersonic speeds and aerial combat two feats the $45 million Nighthawk can't perform.
But bringing the costly Raptor into the service has forced the Air Force to find money by cutting from other weapons programs.
As for Holloman, which previously housed F-15 Eagle fighter jets before the Nighthawks arrived in the early 1990s, proponents hope the military will at least fill any gaps created by a wide-scale retirement.
"We believe the ranges associated with Holloman are some of the best in the U.S. Air Force," Burt said.
Holloman recently lost part of a German air force training unit due to that country's shrinking of overseas operations.
Holloman also houses a large-scale construction group and a test unit that has evaluated the F-22A and other future Air Force weapons.
Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., has long advocated introducing the F-22 or another next-generation jet, the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, to a state base.
The state's other air combat installation, Cannon Air Force Base near Clovis, is under evaluation for a new occupant. The current tenant, the 27th Fighter Wing, is being dissolved as part of last year's base closure round.