AL legislature could help Montgomery land the F-35

Updated: Mar. 1, 2017 at 11:19 PM CST
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Source: WSFA 12 News
Source: WSFA 12 News

MONTGOMERY, AL (WSFA) - Montgomery is one of five locations being considered for the next generation F-35 fighter jets, but there could be something standing in the way: Alabama's capital city is not 100 percent manned.

Officials gathered with the Jefferson and Montgomery County Legislative Delegation Wednesday to discuss ways to make Alabama more appealing in the fight for the F-35. Top military officials say if Montgomery wants to strengthen its chances of landing the jet, it has to be more competitive.

"It's really important to the 187th, and we need to remain competitive as we compete for the F-35, and we do lose folks who are potential recruits every month and every year to other states who offer better educational assistance programs," said Col. William Sparrow, Commander, 187th Operations Group.

"One of the biggest problems we have with trying to win the F-35 competition is to make sure we are 100 percent manned, and one of their biggest problems in getting manning and keeping it here in the unit is the ability to offer the scholarships that other states offer," said Paul Hankins, Retired Air Force Brigadier General.

According to Col. Sparrow, the majority of states in the country offer 100 percent tuition assistance. Alabama is 48th in the nation when looking at tuition assistance for National Guardsmen.

"If Georgia's benefits are better or Mississippi or Florida, they're going to go to those units versus coming to ours," said Hankins, which is why the F-35 Task Force is asking the Alabama legislature for help raising tuition assistance from $2,000 per student, per year, to $4,800.

The task force is made up of military leaders, like Hankins, community officials, and the Montgomery Area Chamber of Commerce. They hired a consultant out of the Pentagon to help pinpoint weaknesses.

"We have an opportunity to bring all those additional funds to our state and be able to set up the framework that we'll get a chance to set up the tanker as well, so the opportunity is there and we need to seize this opportunity that's before us now," said Sen. Rodger Smitherman, D–District 18.

Smitherman and Sen. J.T. Waggoner, R - Distict 16, agreed to sponsor two pieces of legislation. One would raise tuition assistance, the other would serve as a tuition forgiveness program and cover guardsmen's remaining tuition balances.

If the 187th Fighter Wing lands the F-35, that increases Birmingham's 117th Air Refueling Wing's chances of getting a tanker mission.

Officials estimate this will all cost upwards of $2 million, but lawmakers all agree on what's at stake.

"The F-16s that we have now are not going to last forever. They time out at around 2030, a rough year, and the F-35 represents 30 to 40 at least more years of flying," said Col. Sparrow.

"As we look at future BRACs [Base Realignment and Closures] and those types of things, you're talking about, they'll take a hard look at guard and reserve units again and one of the big things is do you have enough people to man your units?" said Hankins.

"It will provide 4,000 jobs for both of our communities combined. We're in an area now where we need to create jobs and keep jobs," said Smitherman.

Landing the F-35 means keeping thousands of jobs in state and the legacy of the Tuskegee Airmen alive, officials hope with the legislature's help Montgomery can nudge its way to the top of the list.

"If they know that the community is so involved and the state legislature is involved to the point where they're doing something to remedy the manning situation, then that's just another plus," said Col. Sparrow.

An on-site assessment of the 187th fighter wing is set for May and a final selection is expected in July.

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