By Mike Linn
Half of the U.S. Air Force’s F-16 fighter jets are likely slated for retirement by 2010, but the plan is not expected to affect the future of Cannon Air Force Base, an official with U.S Sen. Jeff Bingaman’s office said Thursday.
Representatives from the offices of two other U.S. congressmen agreed talks of retiring F-16s are in the works but said nothing has been finalized.
Cannon is home to 80 F-16s, the only aircraft at the base. Jude McCartin, Bingaman’s communications director, said officials are hoping a newer generation of aircraft will take the place of the F-16s at Cannon, namely the F/A-22 Raptor (Stealth fighter) and possibly the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.
She said the older Block 30 model F-16s will be the first and most likely to be retired within the next six years. About 25 percent of Cannon’s aircraft are Block 30s, Cannon officials said.
“Because the Block 30s are the ones to be retired first, we don’t believe this retirement plan will affect Cannon in the next (Base Realignment and Closure process),” McCartin said. “Cannon is very strong. Nowhere in the country is there better airspace than at Cannon.”
U.S. Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., issued a statement Thursday that the Air Force is “floating ideas” about retiring F-16s but the specifics of the plan won’t be known until the Pentagon’s 2006 budget is presented to Congress at the first of the year.
“The Air Force is trying to reconfigure its fleets in order to adjust to its changing missions and budgetary concerns,” Domenici said. “This does not mean that Congress will agree to these plans, as evidenced with our successful effort to stop Pentagon plans to retire some F-117 fighters at Holloman Air Force Base this year.”
Officials at the Pentagon declined several requests for comment.
The Air Force’s top boss, Gen. John Jumper, said front-line fighters will be retired to free up money for upgrades to the force’s remaining fleet, according to a Sept. 13 article published in the Defense News, a periodical of the Army Times Publishing Company.
An official with U.S. Rep. Tom Udall’s office confirmed that top level Air Force officials are drafting plans to retire as many as half of the nation’s F-16s, but he didn’t provide a timetable for those cuts.
“We can’t sit on the F-16s forever because the world is catching up to that technology. Replacement has to take place at some time,” Udall spokesman Glen Loveland said.
Loveland said it’s too early to speculate on any impact to Cannon, adding retirement is not a done deal.
Officials said Cannon’s proposed airspace expansion will be key for Cannon in becoming home to Stealth and F-35 fighters should the retirement of F-16s become reality.
“An important component of that effort will be gaining all clearances for the supersonic flight training in the area,” Domenici said.
The proposed airspace expansion, also known as the New Mexico Training Range Initiative, is slated to go to Congress for approval next fall.
The proposed expansion would allow pilots to fly at supersonic speeds at lower altitudes and expand airspace to 3,300 square miles from 2,600 square miles.
Air Force officials have said 43 USAF bases are home to roughly 1,200 F-16 fighter jets. About 30 of those bases have primarily F-16 aircraft, officials said.