Ohio seeks help from White House

Ohio politicians are seeking President Barack Obama’s help to keep the Netherlands from moving its F-16 training missions from Ohio to Arizona.

Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland (D), who is facing a tough reelection fight, and Sen. Sherrod Brown (D) have in recent weeks engaged Obama, members of the administration and the U.S. Air Force to keep the Dutch fighter pilots in Springfield — along with the local jobs they bring. Sen. George Voinovich (R) has also made efforts to keep the mission in-state.

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Brown told The Hill that he and Strickland have personally talked to Obama, as well as to Deputy Secretary of Defense William Lynn, about the issue.

“I am working it all the time,” Brown said. “It is very important to us that they stay. It is a lot of jobs there and it clearly is a situation where the training is done well and the training is kept at a competitive rate.”

Without significant White House involvement at the eleventh hour, the Ohio delegation faces an uphill battle. The Dutch appear to have made up their mind to go to Tucson, Ariz.; and Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), the top GOP defense authorizer who also finds himself in an intense primary race, told The Hill he has been working to relocate the training missions to his state.

The Arizona National Guard in Tucson already has about 24 international training partners, and has recently added the Singaporean F-16 fighter pilots to the roster. McCain said in a January press release that the Singaporeans’ decision would add $60 million to the Tucson economy.

The value of training foreign fighter pilots has not been lost on the Ohio delegation.

Voinovich said in an interview that he has also “communicated very aggressively” with the Ohio National Guard and has worked with the governor in his quest to preserve the training mission. Voinovich said he was encouraged that Brown and Strickland appealed to the president.

“I think it is wonderful because they are both Democrats and the president wants to carry Ohio and maybe he will step in and do something about it,” Voinovich said.

Voinovich played a major role nearly four years ago when the Ohio delegation lobbied the Dutch to come to Springfield. Former Rep. David Hobson (R), a defense appropriator whose district includes Springfield, led the lobbying push.

The Springfield base is slated to lose its U.S. F-16 training mission at the end of this year, as the Air Force decided to move those missions to other bases around the country. The Ohioans banked on the assumption that by bringing the Dutch to Springfield, other allies who buy and fly Lockheed Martin’s F-16 jet would come and join the Dutch training mission there. The Dutch started training in Ohio in 2007 and their current agreement is slated to end this September.

But now the Dutch are the only ones training in Springfield, and would be for the foreseeable future. The Dutch face higher costs for training as the Air Guard’s only remaining customers in the area, said Floris Van Hövell, the spokesman for the Netherlands Embassy.

“The Air Force offered us Tucson, where we were training before. On top of that they made us a cheaper offer. In times of budget cuts, that is an important consideration,” Van Hövell said.

According to Van Hövell, the price difference between training in Tucson versus Springfield is about 12 percent. Van Hövell said that the Dutch were only offered the option of staying in Springfield for another three years or going to Tucson for the same period.

Air Force data obtained by The Hill shows that a three-year training period in Springfield would cost $117.3 million and the same period would cost $105.3 million in Tucson. The Dutch have indicated to the Air Force repeatedly that cost would be the overriding factor in their looming decision.

“We are in the process of discussing with the Air Force and the Defense Department about moving there,” said Van Hövell. “It seems to be going that way; it looks like we are going to go in the direction of Arizona, but there is no final decision yet.”

Van Hövell said there is still a formal process of being approved for training in Tucson. He expects a decision in the next few weeks.

 “We’ve been treated very well in Ohio,” Van Hövell said.

Van Hövell said the Netherlands’ direct foreign investment in Ohio is $1.5 billion and more than 17,000 jobs have been created both through investments by Dutch companies and exports from Ohio to the Netherlands.

The Air Force communicated with the White House about the possibility of convincing the Dutch to stay in Ohio one more year and go to Tucson at the end of 2011. The one-year respite could give Springfield enough time to find new missions for the Guard to replace the lost F-16 missions. When contacted, the Dutch Embassy did not indicate the possibility of staying another year.

According to local media reports, the Dutch training mission created about 105 new jobs in the area (mostly focused on maintenance) and was expected to bring about $25 million in salaries for four years and $120 million to the U.S. economy.

The Springfield base currently employs 1,000 people, 450 of whom are full-time employees. The jobs are at risk if the Air Force doesn’t find a new mission for Springfield.

Both Obama and Vice President Joe Biden visited Ohio on March 15. Biden spoke at a private fundraiser for Strickland.

The White House and Gov. Strickland’s office did not return requests for comment by press time.