Former Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James and a defense industry lobbyist with ties to Fort Smith believe a decision to locate a pilot training center for the U.S. military’s Foreign Military Sales will be based on “military judgment” and not on politics.
Ebbing Air National Guard Base in Fort Smith is one of five Air Force finalist sites for a long-term pilot training center supporting F-16 and F-35 fighter planes purchased by Singapore, Switzerland and other countries participating in the Foreign Military Sales (FMS) program.
The other finalist sites are Hulman Field (Indiana), Buckley Air Force Base (Colorado), Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland (Texas) and Selfridge Air National Guard Base (Michigan). Officials announced the selection process on July 20, 2020. The Defense Security Cooperation Agency, the federal agency managing the FMS, notes that the program provides “responsible arms sales to further national security and foreign policy objectives by strengthening bilateral defense relations, supporting coalition building, and enhancing interoperability between U.S. forces and militaries of friends and allies.”
Air Force officials conducted virtual site surveys of the five locations. Following the surveys, a grading scale, survey results and other factors were to be provided to the Secretary of the Air Force, with a decision initially expected in late 2020 or early 2021. The initial schedule also would see the chosen airbase receiving the Singapore F-16s in 2023 and the F-35s in 2024.
But the process has been delayed, with a decision now possible as late as July.
“The change in administration has delayed the decision. Just as I did with former (Air Force) Secretary (Barbara) Barrett and President Trump, I will continue advocating for the River Valley as new leadership takes over the vetting process,” U.S. Rep. Steve Womack, R-Rogers, said in a late February note to Talk Business & Politics.
‘A FAIR PROCESS’
To be sure, Arkansas’ Congressional delegation has not been a friend of President Joe Biden. They have opposed Biden’s cabinet picks and voted against his early legislative priorities. U.S. Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., has been one of the more vocal Biden opponents in the U.S. Senate. Congressional delegations in Michigan and Colorado – which have bases in the selection process – have supported the Biden administration.
But the FMS site selection vetting process should be apolitical, according to James and David Olive, the principal at Washington, D.C.-based Catalyst Partners, who was chief of staff for then U.S. Rep. Asa Hutchinson, R-Ark. Olive, who lived in Fort Smith when working for a nursing home operator and Donrey Media, has more than 20 years of experience in defense industry lobbying and analysis.
“In my view, politics can’t play any role in these decisions, because the minute you do allow political considerations to enter into it, what otherwise would and should be a fair process based on military judgment, based on facilities, based on certain people issues,” violates the criteria announced in advance to all those competing for the selection, James told Talk Business & Politics during a recent interview.
James, the Air Force Secretary under President Barack Obama, said politics did not play a role during her term in office, and the White House never pressured her on decisions requiring what she called “military judgment.” She said factors in the FMS decision would include facilities, weather, community support, community resources, flight restrictions, and Singapore officials’ input. James also said officials with sites not selected often review the decision “with a fine tooth comb.” The Pentagon knows that and will likely present a decision based on pre-determined measurables that can stand up to scrutiny, including an assessment by the federal Government Accountability Office (GAO).
“If you introduce politics into it, that process is blown up, and before you know it you’ve got most of the people mad at you in Congress, and when Congress is mad at you, that’s all the more likelihood of having gridlock going forward,” James said.
She acknowledged that Congressional delegations would lobby and communities will make their case for selection, “but at the end of the day, it’s these criteria that I told you about that get weighed most heavily.” She stressed several times during the interview that Air Force officials will likely issue a “quantitative judgment that can be reviewed by the GAO or can be reviewed by a Congressional committee, and would, you know, stand up to scrutiny.”
Olive seconded James’ assertions. He said the Biden Administration has already proven to be much more hands-off with the military.
“I would be surprised if overt politics outweighs all of the other factors in determining site location and training in this new administration. … These types of judgments will be far more based on the merits of the mission, and in my judgment, that’s a good thing,” Olive said. “That (belief) comes from the type of people that President Biden has put in at the Pentagon, as well as his history in public life as a senator. He was certainly an advocate for Delaware, but he tended to let the military operate in their non-partisan role.”
And like James, Olive believes subjective military factors will guide the Air Force decision. Those factors, according to Olive, are base infrastructure, the capacity to maintain simulators, base security, ease in national and international access for foreign pilots and their families, community opposition to noise and night activity, and the weather. He believes Fort Smith has a clear advantage over Michigan and Colorado bases, based solely on weather available flight time.
James pointed to an ongoing military site selection controversy as a reason to avoid politics. The Department of Defense Inspector General is investigating a decision to locate the U.S. Space Force Command in Huntsville, Ala. It was expected that Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado, where many of the assets and people are based who were moved under the Space Force Command, would be selected. But before the announcement, the White House called Air Force Secretary Barbara Barrett. Days later, she announced that Huntsville, located in the Congressional district of ardent Trump supporter U.S. Rep. Mo Brooks, would be the Space Command headquarters.
The Space Force Command decision is now pending until the investigation is completed.
“That’s exactly what you don’t want to have happen,” James said.