Tucsonans will soon see some new aircraft flying regularly out of Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, including a spy plane based on a crop duster, new electronic-warfare planes — and perhaps someday, even combat drones — as D-M gains new missions to replace its retiring A-10 ground-attack jet squadrons.
The Air Force is in the planning stages for a new wing of its Special Operations Command at D-M that will replace the A-10 mission as the renowned “Warthog” close air-support jet is retired over the next several years.
As the fiscal 2024 Pentagon budget wends its way through Congress, new details about D-M’s planned future and the changing face of its aircraft fleets are emerging.
A key defense-policy bill that generally guides appropriations passed the Senate Armed Services Committee last week with the inclusion of $5 million requested by the Air Force to continue site evaluation and planning for what is initially is being called the Special Operations 492rd Power Projection Wing at D-M.
With backing from Arizona Sens. Kyrsten Sinema (I-Phoenix) and Mark Kelly (D-Tucson), the committee’s markup of the fiscal 2024 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) also requires the Pentagon to provide the committee a full accounting of anticipated steps, timeline and budget plans to complete D-M’s restructuring plan.
The amended NDAA next heads for a vote of the full Senate, and later reconciliation with a version awaiting passage in the House. Separate defense appropriations bills are still pending.
“This defense bill provides the resources and oversight necessary to continue the Air Force’s work to bring new, long-term flying missions to Davis-Monthan, including a new special operations wing, ensuring the base will remain central to our national security strategy for years to come,” Kelly said in a prepared statement with Sinema on the NDAA markup.
Sinema said America is stronger and safer thanks to Arizona’s military and defense operations that rely on critical investments from the annual bipartisan defense bill.
“We’re providing servicemembers and our military community with the tools and resources necessary to keep our nation safe and secure,” she said.
Change is nothing new at Davis-Monthan, a key Air Combat Command installation that has changed missions periodically since it was set up in 1940 to train bomber pilots for World War II duty.
The base hosted fighter-jet units in the 1950s and 1960s before what now is the 355th Wing was assigned to the base in 1971, flying A-7D Corsair ground-attack jets before A-10s arrived in 1979 to provide close air support of ground troops.
The Cold War-era A-10, which features a massive, 30-millimeter cannon, gained renown as a tank killer during the Gulf War and underwent a series of upgrades, becoming a mainstay supporting ground troops in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria.
The Air Force has been trying to retire the A-10 through budget cuts since 2014, contending that it wouldn’t survive in a conflict with future adversaries fielding sophisticated air-defense systems.
But Congress, led largely by Arizona’s delegation over the years, blocked the Air Force’s requests to start retiring the A-10 until it consider a new close air-support platform while adding funding for new wings to extend the plane’s service life.
In 2021, members of Congress led by Kelly blocked an Air Force plan to retire 42 A-10s, including 35 at D-M, as part of a larger plan to create a center of excellence for combat search and rescue at the Tucson base, which already hosts a search-and-rescue group.
In April, the Air Force announced it was evaluating D-M as home to the new Special Operations Command wing, with the enthusiastic support of the Arizona lawmakers and local leaders.
The Pentagon, in its fiscal 2024 budget, plans to retire 42 more A-10s, including 35 at D-M, and Air Force leaders say they are looking to retire all of the A-10s by 2029.
A leader of the DM50, a local business and civic group supporting Davis-Monthan, said the group is pleased to see the base line up critical new missions.
“DM50 is certainly happy to see the funding for the site assessment in the NDAA, as we’re fully in support of the proposed missions to replace the A-10, and that’s the first step to making that a reality,” said Linda Morales, past chairwoman and current policy committee chair of the DM50.
Home to the 355th Wing, responsible for training and deploying A-10C Thunderbolt II pilots, Davis-Monthan hosts a range of other missions.
Those include combat search-and-rescue units under the 563rd Rescue Group; the Air Force’s only electronic-combat group; the 12th Air Force command; and the 309th Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Group, the nation’s biggest “boneyard” for retired military aircraft.
The base also supports Border Patrol aviation and Air National Guard drone, homeland security and training missions.
Local government and business leaders have feared the loss of the A-10 mission would diminish D-M, an important economic engine for the region with about 11,000 personnel and an estimated annual economic impact of some $3 billion.
New rescue helos
Besides funding for the spec-ops wing planning at D-M, the Senate bill supports procurement of the Air Force’s new combat-rescue helicopter, the Sikorsky HH-60W Jolly Green II, and restructuring moves that will bring additional rescue assets to D-M over the next three years.
In May, D-M’s 55th Rescue Squadron delivery of the first of the Jolly Green IIs that are expected to replace all of the unit’s aging HH-60G Pave Hawk rescue helicopter fleet by the end of 2024.
The Jolly Green II — named in honor of a transport helicopter adapted to rescue operations during the Vietnam War — is made by Sikorsky based on the same twin-engine design as the Pave Hawk but offers much longer range and state-of-the art electronics.
The Senate version of the NDAA also includes $8.5 million for a new health center for Air Force Reserve combat search and rescue units at the Tucson base, Sinema and Kelly noted in a news release.
Drones over Tucson?
The Senate committee’s bill markup also requires a report on the feasibility of moving a squadron of four MQ-9 Reaper combat drones remotely flown by the Air National Guard 214th Attack Group from Libby Airfield in Sierra Vista to Davis-Monthan, where the unit’s crews are stationed.
Though its personnel is mainly based at D-M, the 214th is assigned to the Arizona Air Guard 162nd Wing at Morris Air National Guard Base at Tucson International Airport. The 214th also flew RC-26 Condor reconnaissance jets from TIA before those planes were retired in April.
The Arizona Air National Guard requested the study of moving the drone launch and landing operations to D-M, which would save thousands of hours of commute time and increase the unit’s efficiency, an aide to Sinema said.
The 214th Attack Group, known as “The Black Sheep,” is comprised of about 300 personnel, with a small number directly assigned to the flight operations at Libby, while others are assigned there on a temporary basis as needed, 162nd Wing spokeswoman Maj. Lacey Perry said.
The MQ-1 Reaper drones stationed at Libby are used for training, Perry said.
The move would also free up space for new mission opportunities at Fort Huachuca, the Arizona senators noted.
Since its inception in 2007 as the 214th Reconnaissance Group, the unit has flown more than 5,000 sorties and provided more than 93,000 flying hours of combat mission support in Southwest Asia.
The group initially flew the MQ-1 Predator drone and changed its name to the 214th Attack Group as it transitioned to the larger, more combat-capable MQ-9 Reaper in 2017.
Besides the new rescue group’s Jolly Green IIs, D-M’s new spec-ops wing will bring one familiar aircraft — and one new plane, based on a crop duster — to Tucson.
In late April, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Charles Q. Brown Jr. told a House committee that D-M’s new spec-ops wing will include the MC-130 — a support plane based on Lockheed’s long-lived Hercules transport platform and similar to other planes now based at D-M — along with “light attack” aircraft.
The Special Operations Command is transitioning from the retiring MC-130H Combat Talon II transport and support plane to an upgraded version, the MC-130 Commando II, by the end of 2024. The command also flies the AC-130J Ghostrider gunship.
Though Brown did not specify the light-attack plane, the Special Operations Command last year chose the AT-802U Sky Warden, developed by defense contractor L3 Harris and Air Tractor, to fulfill its armed reconnaissance mission.
The Sky Warden is based on the Air Tractor AT-802 agricultural and fire-fighting plane, introduced in 1990 as part of a series of crop dusters originally developed in the 1970s.
Air Tractor developed a military version in the late 2000s, and versions of the AT-802 have been used to spray herbicides in efforts to eradicate coca fields in Colombia under a State Department program.
Powered by a single turboprop engine, the Sky Warden can be equipped with armament including Hellfire air-to-ground missiles, guided bombs, unguided rockets and .50-caliber machine guns.
Powered by four turboprop engines, the Special Operations Command’s MC-130s are based on the same Lockheed airframe as the HC-130J Combat King II support planes flown by D-M’s rescue squadrons.
Also similar are the EC-130H Compass Call planes flown by the 55th Electronic Combat Group, a unit uniquely stationed at D-M that provides electronic surveillance and jamming in combat zones and was nearly continuously deployed during the conflicts in the Middle East.
A new jam
But the 55th ECG, a geographically separated unit of the 55th Wing at Offutt Air Force Base, Nebraska, will soon get entirely new aircraft as well.
The Air Force is retiring its EC-130H Compass Call planes and replacing them with the EC-37B, a version of the Gulfstream 550 twin-engine business jet under conversion to the Compass Call electronic surveillance and jamming platform by L3 Harris.
The company is conducting operational testing of the first EC-37Bs among 10 the Air Force is planning to buy to replace its EC-130H fleet of 14 planes.
Last August, one of the first EC-37B Compass Call jets made a brief visit to Davis-Monthan, where the 55th ECG is expected to receive its first operational aircraft later this year and continue with its mission at the Tucson base.
The Senate committee’s NDAA markup also requires the Air Force to make progress on funding EC-37B training flight simulators at D-M.
No F-35s in sight
The one thing you won’t see flying regularly at D-M anytime soon is the nation’s preeminent fifth-generation stealth fighter, the Air Force’s F-35A Lightning II.
Though F-35s sometimes visit D-M while in transit or for training or air shows, D-M so far has been passed over as a base for F-35 units.
Most recently, D-M was considered along with several other bases to host an Air Force Reserve squadron of 26 F-35s but in 2021, the Air Force chose Naval Air Station Joint Reserve Base Fort Worth to host the unit.
The current restructuring plans may be of some relief to Tucson neighborhood activists who have vehemently opposed basing F-35s at D-M because of noise and safety concerns. F-35s are much louder than the A-10s and other aircraft based at D-M.
An Air Force environmental study for the 2021 F-35 basing decision found that the noise from the powerful single-engine jets would cause “significant noise impacts,” subjecting about 1,500 more residents to noise levels that make an area “potentially incompatible for residential use.”
Last week, the Air Force selected another major A-10 base, Moody Air Force Base in Georgia, to host two squadrons of F-35As as its Warthogs are retired by 2029.
The Air Force is typically required to conduct formal environmental assessments of changes in base aircraft fleets or operations under federal law.
Air Guard funding
The Senate version of the NDAA also includes spending and budget-related directives for several Arizona military bases, including the Morris Air National Guard base and Fort Huachuca, according to the Arizona senators’ budget summary.
The Senate legislation includes $11.6 million for “emergency defense infrastructure” at the Morris Air Guard base amid a major airfield-safety project at TIA underway by the Tucson Airport Authority.
The appropriation will fund work to reconfigure runway and taxiway areas, including a new aircraft arresting-cable safety system, to conform with the TIA project.
The Senate committee’s NDAA version also requires a plan for modernizing Air National Guard fighter force structure to provide long-term planning for Air Force airpower and fighter squadrons like the 162nd Wing, a major F-16 training base.
The legislation also authorizes a demonstration of a new “Western Range Complex” that would connect multiple “non-kinetic” ranges for exercises in the region, including Fort Huachuca, home to the Army’s Network Enterprise Technology Command (NETCOM) and the United States Army Intelligence Center.
It also directs the Defense Department to renew its focus on electronic warfare and electromagnetic spectrum operations among the missions at Fort Huachuca.
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