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The Journal Gazette

  • Young

  • Donnelly

Thursday, June 14, 2018 1:00 am

Defense bill linked to 122nd

Gives local base shot at F-35s, housing pay hike

BRIAN FRANCISCO | The Journal Gazette

The national defense bill being debated this week by the U.S. Senate includes provisions to bolster Fort Wayne's Air National Guard base and its personnel.

An amendment offered by Sen. Todd Young, R-Ind., aims to keep the base in the running for a possible conversion to F-35 advanced fighter jets. And a provision introduced by Sen. Joe Donnelly, D-Ind., would increase the housing allowance for full-time airmen assigned to the 122nd Fighter Wing.

Young's office said his proposal would require the Pentagon to brief Congress quarterly on its “efforts to ensure that excessive sustainment costs do not threaten the Department of Defense's ability to purchase the required number” of F-35 aircraft.

His measure is part of a package of amendments passed unanimously Monday by the Senate, which is expected to vote this week or next on the fiscal 2019 National Defense Authorization Act.

The Government Accounting Office announced last October that the Defense Department “is facing sustainment challenges that are affecting warfighter readiness” with its more than 250 F-35s. Those challenges included lengthy repair times, spare parts shortages and delays in updates to computer software.

Bloomberg reported in March that it had obtained an internal analysis showing the Air Force might cut as many as 590 from the 1,763 F-35As it plans to buy unless sustainment costs improve.

The plane has been called the most expensive American weapon program ever – the Pentagon says the total acquisition cost for a Lockheed Martin-built F-35 Joint Strike Fighter is $406 million, although prices are expected to drop as production ramps up.

“Maintaining American military superiority is the best means to deter conflict and protect Americans,” Young said Wednesday in a statement. “However, growing F-35 sustainment costs risk preventing the Department of Defense from procuring the necessary number of F-35 aircraft. That would not be good for the taxpayers or our service members.”

He also said: “The 122nd Fighter Wing has a tremendous reputation and track record of mission accomplishment. If the Department of Defense is able to procure the full number of F-35s, I am confident in the 122nd's ability to compete for the opportunity to station the aircraft at Fort Wayne. That is why I introduced this amendment and why I plan to push the Pentagon to keep F-35 sustainment costs under control.”

The 122nd Fighter Wing operates a squadron of nearly two-dozen A-10 combat jets. The Ferguson Road complex was among 18 Air National Guard bases that were candidates to fly F-35s beginning in 2023, but it missed the cut when the Air Force selected five finalists in late 2016. The Air Force ended up choosing a base in Alabama and one in Wisconsin as the winners.

The Fort Wayne base had been on track to convert to F-16 fighter jets. A year ago, however, Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson said the 122nd Fighter Wing would continue to fly A-10s until at least 2022.

Donnelly's provision to increase the housing allowance for more than 200 airmen in Fort Wayne was included in the $716 billion defense bill when it was approved in May by the Senate Armed Services Committee, of which he is a member.

The military compensates uniformed service members whose bases do not provide quarters. The housing allowance is based on local rents, utilities and renter's insurance.

Allowance rates this year for Fort Wayne range from $822 a month to $1,392, depending on pay grade and whether an airman has dependents. The rates are less than those for Indianapolis, Toledo, Dayton and the Michigan markets of Detroit, Lansing and Grand Rapids.

In January, Donnelly and Rep. Jim Banks, R-3rd, wrote a letter to the Defense Travel Management Office insisting that housing allowance rates for Fort Wayne base personnel “do not accurately reflect current housing costs” in the community.

They wrote that the office had linked allowance rates to local housing market data that were “inaccurate or incomplete over the course of several years.” Their letter stated that data used by the office from 76 of 97 census tract zones had not been updated since 2003 and that data for only five zones had been updated since 2012.