New Mexico Air Force base at crossroads

The sleek Nighthawk stealth fighter has been the mainstay of Holloman Air Force Base, New Mexico, for more than a decade.

The sleek Nighthawk stealth fighter has been the mainstay of Holloman Air Force Base, New Mexico, for more than a decade.

But now the New Mexico congressional delegation is facing the inevitable — the retirement of the Air Force’s 20-year-old fighter jets — much sooner than expected, after fighting such a move for several years.

The Air Force has decided to accelerate the retirement of its F-117 fighters from 2011 to 2008, leaving the state’s delegation and the community around Holloman Air Force Base to fight for what they call a new “mission.”

New Mexico’s sense of urgency is growing because of concerns that the 52 Nighthawks may be retired before the Air Force finds a viable alternative for Holloman, thus creating a climate of instability in the community surrounding the base, whose economy is largely dependent on the military.

Holloman has its sights set on the Air Force’s new aircraft, the F-22 Raptor fighter, which will be in need of home bases in 2008.

The New Mexico delegation is putting off launching a campaign to keep the stealth fighters.

“We are fighting to get the F-22 there,” said Rep. Steve Pearce (R-N.M.) whose district includes Holloman. “There is no better base in the country.”

Holloman Air Force Base escaped the 2005 round of base closures and realignments, despite the fact that the F-117, built by Lockheed Martin, had been slated for retirement, said Sen. Pete Domenici (R-N.M.).

“Holloman was left intact, which means to me that we are going to get something else,” he told The Hill. “It means to me that there must be some significant organizational effort to fill that void. All we hear is F-22s. …”

The Air Force recently visited Holloman Air Force Base to see if the installation would be suitable to house the F-22, according to a congressional source who asked not to be quoted by name. “They are undergoing an environmental study,” and the results are due this summer, the source said.

But the New Mexico delegation is not going to sit back and let the Air Force retire the F-117 without demanding a detailed explanation of how it is going to implement its plan. Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) is expecting a detailed report from the Air Force by March 1, explaining how the retirement is going to take shape starting in 2007. That report is necessary to figure out how many people will leave, the congressional source said.

“We are not going to sit by and let this timetable of theirs occur without some assurance of where we are going,” Domenici said.

If the Air Force does not give the New Mexico delegation assurances of what the next task will be for Holloman, “we are going to slow [the F-117 retirement] down,” he warned. “I am not going to sit by and let this roll by without pushing very hard and pursuing with vigor what that task is going to be.”

He added, however, that the delegation is working in tandem with the Air Force to have a smooth transition. The Air Force also has to come up with a “credible” budget for fielding the F-22, he said.

The F-22, also built by Lockheed Martin, has seen its share of controversy and delays over the years.

“We need to help them get the F-22 money,” said Domenici, a member of the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee.

The Air Force does not have enough F-22s coming off the production line fast enough to fill the gap at Holloman, another congressional source said.

While the New Mexico delegation is expressing its hopes for housing the F-22, the Air Force is keeping quiet on what its decision may be.

“Since we are at the beginning of the retirement process, we are still analyzing which mission or missions will be conducted at Holloman Air Force Base in the future,” said an Air Force spokesperson.

Other potential candidates to fill Holloman’s void are the Joint Unmanned Combat Air System and the Joint Strike Fighter, but neither would be ready for delivery until at least 2012, thus leaving the base virtually unused.

“Whatever time it will be between 2008 and when the new mission comes in, we would be severely impacted,” said Ed Carr, the executive director of the Alamogordo Chamber of Commerce.

Businesses would close, and the home buying market would fall, Carr said. “It will be like closing the base,” he said.

Holloman generates $450 million for the local economy, 51 percent of the area’s total revenue. If the F-117 retires, the area will lose 5,000 airmen out of a total of 6,000, said Carr.

The Air Force expects to save about $1.07 billion over the next four year by retiring the F-117 early, an Air Force spokesperson said. However, the service conceded that the retirement of the aircraft would require a significant level of funding to terminate contracts, shutdown facilities and undergo environmental cleanup.

Lockheed Martin is assessing the retirement’s impact to the company, according to an industry source.