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Times Record News April 7, 2009

Gates outlines plans for base

By Trish Choate

WASHINGTON — Sheppard Air Force Base faces a good news/bad news scenario in the budget request outlined Monday by Defense Secretary Robert Gates.

The bad news first: Gates calls for cutting the production of F-22 Raptors — one of many planes Sheppard trains workers to maintain.

The good news: He wants to boost production of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter — a new aircraft that might provide a mission for Sheppard someday. Gates also wants to ramp up the number of cyber experts — a possible source of another new mission for the base.

“To improve cyberspace capabilities, we will increase the number of cyber experts this department can train from 80 students per year to 250 per year,” Gates said in a Monday speech.

He wants to see the increase by fiscal year 2011.

Although it wasn’t clear Monday, Gates’ cyber announcement could relate to cyber-security training that Sheppard, Goodfellow Air Force Base in San Angelo or Keesler Air Force Base in Mississippi are in the running for.

The cyber-security training mission would bring as many as 800 students and 60 instructors to its home base. It has a startup budget of $11.6 million.

For weeks, a decision has been up in the air while the timeline for an announcement steadily recedes into the future.

“There are some decisions being proposed at the White House level, and we are waiting for those decisions to be worked through,” Gary Strasburg, a Pentagon spokesman, said Monday.

Gates floated a solution to the ongoing debate of whether the Air Force should produce F-22s, F-35s or both.

Experts have argued on all sides of the issue with some claiming the F-22 is a superior fighter, and others pushing the F-35, a fighter with different versions for different branches of the military.

The F-22 is to replace the F-15, and the F-35 is to replace the F-16. Sheppard has been training aircraft maintenance workers for the F-15 and F-16, both fighter planes.

And the base graduated its first class of F-22 maintenance students in April 2008, the first from a new state-of-the-art, multimillion dollar training facility, according to the Times Record News archives.

Gates’ budget specified the Air Force would retire 250 of its most elderly fighter aircraft in fiscal year 2010. He also proposed ending production of F-22 fighters at 187.

Projections once called for 295 to 339 Raptors to replace F-15s, according to globalsecurity.org, a military news and information Web site.

But Gates threw his weight behind the F-35 in Monday’s budget request.

“To sustain U.S. air superiority, I am committed to building a fifth-generation tactical fighter capability that can be produced in quantity at sustainable cost,” Gates said.

He recommended increasing the purchase of the aircraft from 14 in fiscal year 2009 to 30 in fiscal year 2010.

Gates called for funding increases of $6.8 billion to $11.2 billion to cover a bigger order in fiscal year 2010.

“We would plan to buy 513 F-35s over the five-year defense plan, and, ultimately, plan to buy 2,443,” Gates said in his speech.

U.S. Rep. Mac Thornberry, Wichita Falls congressman, and U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, have been seeking to land an F-35 maintenance-training mission for Sheppard.

“Americans know that the best defense is staying ahead,” said Hutchison. “As we look at the details of Secretary Gates’ budget proposal, we must prevent any cuts that will let us fall behind the military capability of other nations.

“In the coming weeks, the Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense, of which I am a member, will hear testimony from industry and defense experts. I will press them to ensure that proposed cuts in this budget will be replaced with the next generation of equipment to maintain the superiority of American defense.”

Obama has already released a recommendation of $533.7 billion for a baseline budget request, along with a 2.9 percent military pay raise and a 2 percent civil service pay raise.

Gates’ recommendations to the president are the first of many steps in the budget process, said Michelle Ozanus, spokeswoman for U.S. Rep. Randy Neugebauer, who represents Young County and part of Archer County.

Indeed, the “buck stops with Congress” since it has the “Constitutional responsibility” to decide whether to support Gates’ proposals, House Armed Services Committee Chairman Ike Skelton, a Missouri Democrat, said in a media release.

Thornberry was traveling Monday and couldn’t be reached.


Copyright 2009, The E.W. Scripps Co.