WASHINGTON — The Trump administration has vowed to rebuild Tyndall Air Base, the hurricane-ravaged home of the Air Force’s F-22 Raptor training fleet, though it seems the Air Force faces a long road ahead, and the journey could be fraught with budgetary and political battles.
U.S. Vice President Mike Pence visited the post Oct. 25 to announce the White House’s intent to restore the post, where — according to at least one lawmaker — 17 of the post’s 55 F-22s used to train pilots for high-end air superiority missions were damaged when the post was struck by Hurricane Michael earlier this month.
“President [Donald] Trump and I are committed to providing the resources necessary to rebuild Tyndall Air Force Base so that it can continue to be a vital and critical part of our national defense,” Pence said.
That decision is welcome news to the Air Force and Florida lawmakers like Sen. Marco Rubio who have lobbied the Trump administration to make Tyndall great again. The post not only plays a key role in the air defense of the United States; it impacts $2.5 billion in the local economy and 20,000 jobs in the surrounding Bay County, Florida, area, according to Gov. Rick Scott.
Hurricane Michael, the third-most intense Atlantic hurricane to make landfall in the U.S., hit Oct. 10, forcing the evacuation of the post’s 11,000 personnel, destroying facilities and disrupting its operations. The post’s 325th Fighter Wing provides training for all F-22A Raptor pilots, and its 601st Air Operations Center provides aerospace warning and control for North American Aerospace Defense Command defensive counter-air activities.
Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson said during Pence’s visit that she plans to restore the air operations center’s air defense responsibilities (transferred to another post a few hours before the storm), bring its 800 employees back and get it to initial operating capability by Jan. 1, 2019.
About 900 people — mostly security forces and civil engineers — have returned to Tyndall on assignment, and airmen and their families are slowly returning to the base to recover property and begin making insurance claims.
How long it will take the Air Force to reach its previous ability to maintain and fly F-22s at Tyndall is a question the service cannot answer, and there is no concrete timeline for the F-22s to return to Tyndall, said Air Force spokeswoman Ann Stefanek. The service is still assessing all the damage to the base and will need time to make repairs to facilities or contract out for new construction.
Meanwhile, the Air Force will reactivate its F-22 simulators next month to restart pilot training, with student pilots making T-38 and F-22 sorties from Eglin Air Force, Florida, about 80 miles down the road.
“We can’t fly aircraft out of Tyndall at the moment,” Wilson said. “But by Thanksgiving, we will have F-22s in the skies over the Panhandle.”
An argument can be made for reassessing the base’s future. The Air Force this year agreed to look at consolidating its fleet of but stealthy and maneuverable F-22s after the Government Accountability Office found that fleet is too widely dispersed. (The Air Force set the organizational structure for the F-22 in 2010, two years before F-22 production was cancelled, leaving the service with half the inventory it built its plans for.)
“There should be a full analysis of alternatives that compares rebuilding in that specific place against other options,” said Susanna Blume, a former Pentagon official now with the Center for a New American Security. "I don’t know whether or not they will look at it, but I certainly hope they would as a taxpayer. But it may very well be that those political considerations trump the pure analytic answer.”
According to a 2017 study by the Defense Department, the Air Force has 32 percent more infrastructure capacity than it needs — just behind the Army, which led the services in excess infrastructure. The study recommended the department proceed with a new base closure round to optimize how its resources are spread across installations.
In a July report, GAO made the case that the Air Force’s current basing construct for F-22s had led to low aircraft availability. F-22 wings have only one or two squadrons connected to them, while most other fighter wings comprise two to three squadrons — usually with a higher number of jets than the average F-22 squadron. For instance, Tyndall’s 325th Fighter Wing houses one F-22 training squadron and one operational F-22 squadron.
GAO recommended and the Air Force consolidate its F-22 presence into larger squadrons and wings, which would allow squadrons to have a larger pool of aircraft and spare parts to draw from in a contingency. If that happened, it’s unclear how Tyndall would fare.
Retired Air Force Lt. Gen. David Deptula, the dean of the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies, said the estimated cost of rebuilding is $2.5 billion, but Tyndall must be rebuilt and retain the F-22, in part, because of the post’s closeness to the Gulf Test Range, which accommodates high-altitude supersonic air combat training. The question of F-22 unit sizes ought to be considered separately, he said.
“It makes sense to rebuild it," Deptula said of Tyndall. “Other than its proximity to testing ranges, it makes sense for mission, economic and political purposes."
In a letter to Wilson last week, Rubio. R-Fla., in essence called on the Air Force to fast-track repairs to Tyndall’s damaged F-22s. Referencing Defense Secretary Jim Mattis’s request to Wilson to make 80 percent of all critical aviation platforms ready by fiscal 2019, and Rubio asked her to ensure Tyndall’s F-22s are in the mix.
“Additionally, I ask that you waste no time or effort in providing a supplemental funding request to Congress to repair and restore these aircraft to mission capable status as soon as possible,” Rubio said.
Rubio, Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson and Republican Rep. Neal Dunn (whose district includes Tyndall), wrote to Air Force leaders Oct. 12 to express their commitment to the post’s full recovery, and they wrote to Trump on Oct. 15, asking that he commit to restore the post.
“It is imperative that we rapidly repair and restore operations as quickly as possible in order to protect and promote U.S. national security interests,” they wrote.
Nelson, who faces a fierce re-election challenge from Scott, said Oct. 14 it was his “judgment as a senior member of the Senate Armed Services Committee” that Tyndall be rebuilt because “it is located strategically next to the very critical Gulf testing and training range.”
On Monday, Dunn hosted U.S. House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, who is lobbying House Republicans to succeed Paul Ryan as speaker of the House. McCarthy, R-Calif., said in a statement he would work with Dunn “to get your community the full support to rebuild and come back stronger than ever.”
Hours after Pence’s visit, House Defense Appropriations Subcommittee Chair Kay Granger, R-Texas, announced she was talking to Dunn and would visit Tyndall soon. She is in the running to replace the full committee’s retiring chairman.
“The Appropriations Committee is ready to do whatever is needed,” she said, “to help in the recovery from devastation caused by Hurricane Michael.”