JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – The Florida Air National Guard is making a push to Jacksonville political and business leaders to bring the F-35, an advanced fighter jet, to Northeast Florida.
Currently, the Florida Air National Guard, which is headquartered on the Northside near Jacksonville International Airport, operates F-15 fighter jets and employs 1,000 people full-time and part-time who have a net worth of $100 million in the local economy.
But the problem is that the F-15 -- a longtime staple of the military -- has become quite old. If the F-15 is phased out, the Florida Air National Guard could be in jeopardy.
"That's true, although I'm not saying it is. I don't want to be an alarmist. It's a possibility if the Air Force, at some point, decides they can not maintain the weapons systems and decides to shut down the weapons system entirely," said Brig. Gen. Jim Eifert, of Florida Air National Guard. "The F-15s behind me are 35 years old on average. So how long they will last and how long the Air Force is willing to maintain the weapons system is unknown at this point."
The Jacksonville base is one of 18 bases around the country in the running for the F-35, which is described as the jet that will be the future of air fighting. Two bases will get the F-35 jets.
The selection process for the bases can take some time, the Department of Military Affairs deputy communications director William Manley said.
“The Air Force will announce the finalists sometime in the very near future and narrow it down to 4-6 bases,” Manley said. “Those bases will then get a more rigorous inspection -- actual site visits, environmental studies and other formal steps. Once those 4-6 bases are named, there's probably at least another year until that list is racked-and-stacked and submitted to Congress for approval.”
Florida air guardsmen met with civic leaders Wednesday to tell them why attracting the jets to Jacksonville is so important.
"This is round two of bedding-down process that started back in 2009 or 2010. We were one of the top three nominees to be a candidate for the F-34 at the time. The decision was made, there was one available, and that unit was selected as Burlington, Vermont," Eifert said.
Most everyone at the meeting seemed on board with it, but there were a couple a Jacksonville City Council members like Councilman John Crescimbeni who raised a concern about how much development has happened in the area, saying it's like Mandarin was years ago.
"This area of Jacksonville is continuing to grow in residential housing. And if the economy continues to perform like it has the past several years, there's going to be a lot of pressure on areas that are not now allowed to be zoned residential and divide that buffer area for the airport, but these types of operations," Crescimbeni said.
The Air National Guard said the Jacksonville Aviation Authority has done a great job of managing its air space, so it shouldn't be a problem. But Crescimbeni brought up some similar problems near Jacksonville Executive at Craig Airport, where they developed a lot around Craig Airport over the years, and there have been ongoing battles about extending the runway.
The hope is that's a minor issue at most, because the job and economy numbers that were discussed Wednesday showed the Florida Air National Guard's long-term viability is important to Jacksonville.
News4Jax was told that the third base with F-35s was put in Vermont for political reasons, which is why Jacksonville politicians attended Wednesday's meeting with the hopes that they'll push for the jets to come to the area as the decision is eventually made.