JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- A key component in protecting our First Coast, especially during severe weather like Hurricane Matthew, is the Florida Air National Guard, which is facing its own kind of turbulence right now at its Jacksonville base.
In April, the Air Force named Jacksonville’s 125th fighter wing as one of the five finalists to base a new fleet of F-35s, said to be the world's most advanced fighter jet.
The decision could make or break the wing’s future in Northeast Florida.
Colonel Brian Bell, the wing commander for the Florida Air National Guard in Jacksonville, says the possibility of F-15s being discontinued could cause their base to shut down, unless they are given some kind of replacement.
"If we don’t get new relevant equipment and we are not part of that bigger puzzle there is the potential that we are no longer needed here in Northeast Florida," said Bell.
Jacksonville’s base is in competition with four other bases around the country to become the new home for the F-35s: Montgomery, AL; Boise, ID; Selfridge, MI, and Madison, WI.
The Secretary of the Air Force will make her basing decision late this summer, choosing two of the five finalists.
"Right now the Air Force has to make some pretty definitive choices in terms of how it’s going to spend it’s money going forward based off of the president’s budget in the coming years," said Bell. "And one of those tough decision they’re going to have to make is what they are going to do with the F-15. The F-15 was supposed to be replaced by the F-22 but because we didn’t buy enough F-22s that meant we needed to keep the F-15s around longer for air superiority."
Bell says his wing, made up of civilians, many with other part-time jobs throughout the community, bring a $100,000,000 impact to Northeast Florida with their nearly 1,000 jobs.
"We ensure the skies are filled with friendly forces and not the enemy," said Bell.
The Air Force recently took a tour of the base as part of their determination of where to send this new fleet. Shortly after, Florida’s entire delegation sent a letter to the secretary of the Air Force asking for her to consider Jacksonville as a top option.
Congressman Al Lawson sent First Coast News a statement Thursday, saying, "“Bringing F-35 squadrons to our 125th Fighter Wing in Jacksonville would help create thousands of much-needed jobs and boost Jacksonville’s economy. In a world with ever evolving global threats, this would bolster Florida’s ability to be on the frontlines of protecting our country.”
Meanwhile, Bell said, as of right now, they don't have a back up plan.
"If it was not going to be moving from the F-15 to the F-35 what are all the air men then going to be doing here when the F-15 retires? So there are no grantees. It will be just speculation at this point."
Bell said what differentiates Jacksonville’s base from other bases is how the hangars can already fit F-35s. He also says Jacksonville is the only base with the F-15 fleet that could be phased out, while the other bases have F-16s and A-10s that will not be discontinued.
They will get a final decision sometime in September or October at the latest. If they do get the new fleet, it would be implemented in 2023.
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