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Congressman: New Jersey base will take new F-35 fighters

F-35A Lightning II's from the 34th Fighter Squadron at Hill Air Force Base, Utah, land at Royal Air Force Lakenheath, England, April 15, 2017. The aircraft arrival marks the first F-35A fighter training deployment to the U.S. European Command area of responsibility. (U.S. Air Force photo/Tech. Sgt. Matthew Plew)

If Vermont doesn’t want the Air Force’s newest fighter jets, New Jersey will be glad to find a home for them in South Jersey.

Congressman Donald Nocross, D-1 of Camden, made that clear in a letter to the Air Force’s acting secretary last week that renewed the state’s push for the service to send some of the new F-35 fighters to the New Jersey Air National Guard’s 177th Fighter Wing at Atlantic City International Airport in Egg Harbor Township.

Norcross, who is New Jersey’s highest ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee, said the newer jets are needed as replacements for the 177th’s aging 1980s era F-16s. The wing flies the fighters as part of its homeland defense mission to help defend the east coast from potential attacks against New York, Washington, Virginia and other targets.

“Currently, the 177th Fighter Wing supports our homeland defense utilizing the oldest F-16s in our inventory,” Norcross wrote in his Aug. 16 letter to Acting Secretary Matthew Donovan. “With such a vital mission at stake, defending our nation’s most vital government and economic regions, the Wing must be considered for an upgrade to the newest technology and platforms available — the F-35s.”

The F-35s are the military’s latest state-of-the-art fighter being developed by Lockheed Martin for the U.S. military and its allies. The jets are considerably stealthier than earlier fighter jets like the F-16s and also have enhanced radar and sensor capabilities that are expected to make them more lethal assets.

New Jersey’s congressional delegation lobbied hard for the 177th to receive some of the new fighter jets in 2016 when the Air Force was considering where to base some of the first batches of the new fighters. The wing and its base at Atlantic City International was among 18 Guard installations that were considered but the Air Force wound up selecting bases in Wisconsin and Alabama.

The decision was a blow for the 177th and cast some doubts on the wing’s future in the event of a future round of base closures, although the Air Force has invested both in infrastructure improvements at the wing’s airfield and in upgraded radar systems for the 22 F-16s based there.

Ironically, the Air Force announced its decision to pass over the 177th around the same time it opted to locate some of the first new KC-46 mid-air refueling tankers at Joint Base McGuire-Dix Lakehurst, a decision that is expected to preserve the installation’s air mobility mission for the foreseeable future.

Norcross’ letter was sent in the wake of a still brewing a controversy in Vermont surrounding the impending arrival of 18 of the new fighter jets at the New England state’s 158th Fighter Wing based at Burlington International Airport.

The wing is due to receive the first of its new jets next month, but the elected leaders of Burlington City, the state’s most populous municipality and the owner of the airport, have voted to approve two resolutions opposing the basing the new F-35s at the airport.

The latest resolution was approved last week and expresses opposition to the fighters because they are capable of carrying nuclear weapons. The resolution requested officials tell the Department of Defense that the F-35s are not welcomed in Burlington.

The Vermont Senate also approved a similar resolution in May, according to a report from the Vermont Digger.

In addition the jets ability to carry nukes, residents in Vermont have also expressed concerns the fighters are too loud and not safe.

Norcross’ letter did not specifically mention the Vermont controversy, but it did remind the secretary of New Jersey’s interest and support for basing the new F-35s in the Garden State, arguing that the jets would enhance the 177th’s abilities to help defend the U.S. homeland and also deploy for military missions overseas.

Since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the wing has been on constant alert for rapid deployment against any airborne threat and the wing has also participated in overseas operations in both Iraq and Afghanistan.

In his letter, Norcross cited the 177th’s strategic location on the eastern seaboard between New York and Washington and its close proximity to the nearby Warren Grove Gunnery Range, which is used for bombing and strafing practice. He also referenced the wing’s airfield as having the second-longest runway in the country, along with ample space to house new fighters.

He also said Rep. Jeff Van Drew, the Democratic congressman who represents the district where the airport is located, is a longtime supporter of the wing’s mission, as are the other elected officials from the surrounding communities.

“You will find no better community to welcome the addition of the F-35 to the 177th fleet,” Norcross wrote.

He requested a briefing on the Air Force’s process for selecting additional National Guard bases to house F-35s in the future.


© 2019 Burlington County Times