Jacksonville falls short in bid for F-35 jets

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Jacksonville will not become home to F-35 Joint Strike Fighters after the U.S. Air Force on Thursday selected Truax Field Air National Guard Base in Wisconsin and Dannelly Field in Alabama as the preferred locations for the planes.

The selection, which requires final approval after environmental analyses are complete, came despite efforts by Florida lawmakers, members of Congress and Gov. Rick Scott to bring the aircraft to Jacksonville.

“Selecting Truax Field and Dannelly Field will increase Air National Guard F-35A units providing 5th Generation air power around the world,” Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson said in a prepared statement.

Maj. Gen. Michael Calhoun, adjutant general of the Florida National Guard, had estimated the jets could have an economic impact of about $100 million a year on Northeast Florida.

The Air Force also looked at bases in Boise, Idaho, and Selfridge, Michigan.

The placement of the F-35s in Jacksonville with the 125th Fighter Wing also would have guaranteed an Air Force presence whenever the F-15s are phased out.

But there’s good news that comes along with the obvious letdown, one expert said Friday.

“I'm sure there is disappointment,” said Maj. Gen. Emmett Titshaw, who is now retired but served as the adjutant general in Florida from 2010 to 2015. “It's the second time we've been in the running, so to speak -- (for) the F-35.”

Titshaw spent 40 years in the Air Force and in aviation, including flying the F-15. He knows a lot about that plane, and this one, the new F-35 that’s being taken to U.S. military bases in the United States, and around the world.

This week, the Air Force announced that bases in Wisconsin and Alabama will host the F-35s. They’re going to sites with F-16s that are aging out.

Titshaw said that’s likely a big part of the decision not to come to Jacksonville.

“Currently, we have 55 fighter squadrons across the entire Air Force,” Titshaw said. “That's active component, Air National Guard (and) Air Force Reserves. That's less than 40 percent of the squadrons we had for Desert Storm, so it is critical that we sustain our force structure in the fighter community.”

An F-35 Joint Strike Fighter is a stealth fighter, with a different capacity for missiles than F-15s.

Titshaw said the F-15 complements the F-35, as an air superiority craft and a long-range jet.

So, as for F-15s flying with Jacksonville’s 125th Fighter Wing of the Air National Guard? Titshaw believes upgrades and advancements will keep that specific aircraft in service for years to come. That bodes well for the long-term stability of this unit.

“Although there is disappointment and sadness that we are not getting the F-35,” Titshaw said. “But the 125th Fighter Wing has a bright future in the Eagle aircraft -- the F-15C.”

Titshaw said a byproduct of trying to get the F-35s has been the tremendous community support from across the state.

The Air National Guard has a feeling of pride with Sen. Bill Nelson and Marco Rubio, Scott, Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry and members of the House of Representatives all taking an interest in what the 125th Fighter Wing has to offer.

The director of public affairs for the Florida National Guard issued the following statement Thursday on the F-35 basing decision announcement:

Earlier today, we were notified that the Florida National Guard's 125th Fighter Wing was not selected to be the next home of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. While not the decision we were hoping for, we are confident that the Air Force did what was right for the long-term strength and security of our nation.

"Although we were not selected, our forces are more relevant than ever before. Our 125th Fighter Wing remains strategically located to provide a capable defense against current and emerging threats. Our F-15 fighter jets sustain an unmatched win/loss ratio in air-to-air combat, and their advanced radar system will continue to provide capabilities beyond that of other homeland defense aircraft. Furthermore, a Department of Defense modernization plan is in development, and these upgrades will ensure that our current fleet of F-15 aircraft remain an unmatched Air Dominance platform far into the 2030s and beyond.

"Moving forward, the men and women of your Florida National Guard will maintain their focus on excellence and their commitment to protecting our citizens both at home and abroad. Thank you for your continued faith in us, and for making our state the best place in the nation to wear the uniform."

About the Authors:

Kent Justice co-anchors News4Jax's 5 p.m., 10 and 11 p.m. newscasts weeknights and reports on government and politics. He also hosts "This Week in Jacksonville," Channel 4's hot topics and politics public affairs show each Sunday morning at 9 a.m.