Michigan lawmakers renew fight to land defense fighter plane site

Some activists say U.S. should invest more on domestic programs

U.S. Air Force Tech. Sgt. Brian West watches an Air Force F-35 Lightning II joist strike fighter aircraft approach for the first time July 14, 2011, at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla. | U.S. Air Force photo by Samuel King Jr. via Flickr Public Domain

For the second time in as many years, a bipartisan set of the Michigan congressional delegation is urging federal government officials to select Selfridge Air National Guard Base in Macomb County as a site to utilize a popular defense jet fighter plane. 

Selfridge in Harrison Township is one of five finalists nationwide being considered to host an international contingent as part of the U.S. Air Force’s plan to establish an F-35 fighter jets foreign military sales training center. 

However, the U.S. Air Force may look to retire some of its older-model F-35 fighters that are used for training over the next decade, according to Lt. Gen. S. Clinton Hinote, the Air Force’s deputy chief of staff for strategy, integration and requirements. As reported by Military.com, older versions of the jet may be retired instead of receiving expensive upgrades to keep them viable for a future conflict.

Reaction to the possible opportunity has been mixed. Most Michigan Capitol Hill lawmakers support the idea, but some activists aren’t so keen on it. 

The plan would call on the U.S. Air Force to sell F-35s to Singapore. Their student pilots would train in Michigan. As an F-35 training center, Selfridge then could house up to 36 F-35s, and the Southeast Asia country would purchase a percentage of those aircrafts. If Selfridge were to be chosen, about 150 families would relocate to Michigan from Singapore. It would include the pilots and maintenance employees. The base would also house Singaporean F-16s as well as F-35s and F-35s that would be purchased by the countries of Poland, Switzerland and Finland. 

Selfridge was in the running to house the F-35 in 2020. But in April of last year, the Air Force selected sites in Alabama and Wisconsin instead.

An A-10 Thunderbolt II from the 127th Wing is parked beneath a shelter on a foggy morning Jan. 11, 2014, at Selfridge Air National Guard Base, Mich. Selfridge Air National Guard Base has been used as a military air field since 1917. | U.S. Air National Guard photo/Tech. Sgt. Robert Hanet via via Flickr Public Domain

Nonetheless, a bipartisan group of 10 U.S. House members from Michigan signed a May 7 letter urging the Air Force to select Selfridge. 

“There’s no better location for Singapore to base its F-35s than Selfridge Air National Guard Base,” said Rep. Lisa McClain (R-Bruce Twp.), who represents the area. “As a member of the House Armed Services Committee, I am constantly advocating for Selfridge and working to bolster opportunities for the base. Selfridge has untapped potential, and having Singapore train its pilots there would be fantastic for Singapore, Selfridge, the 10th Congressional District, Michigan and the United States.”

Rep. Lisa McClain

Joining her in signing the letter are U.S. Reps. Andy Levin (D-Bloomfield Twp.), Fred Upton (R-St. Joseph), Jack Bergman (R- Watersmeet), Tim Walberg (R-Tipton), Peter Meijer (R-Grand Rapids), Debbie Dingell (D-Dearborn), Bill Huizenga (R-Zeeland), John Moolenaar (R-Midland) and Brenda Lawrence (D-Southfield).

Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer recently appeared in a Zoom presentation designed to secure the site. U.S. Sen. Gary Peters (D-Bloomfield Twp.), who serves on the Senate Armed Services Committee, has been a strong supporter of the F-35 having a home in Michigan.

“In advance of a decision being made, I’m going to continue to strongly advocate for the selection of Selfridge for an international F-35 training center through my role on the Armed Services Committee and in conversations with DoD officials,” Peters tweeted.

U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Detroit) did not sign the May 7 letter. Neither did Reps. Haley Stevens (D-Rochester Hills), Elissa Slotkin (D-Holly) and Dale Kildee (D-Flint Twp.).  However,  U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Lansing), Stevens, Slotkin and Kildee did sign a letter in March backing the effort. Tlaib was the only Michigan congressional delegation member who did not sign either letter. 

Tlaib spokesman Denzel McCampbell said the issue is not one that she is “focused on at this time.” Two years ago, Tlaib withheld her signature on a letter that urged Air Force officials to make Selfridge a site for the F-35. Neither did then-Rep. Justin Amash (I-Cascade Twp.) Last July, Tlaib voted against U.S. House passage of the Fiscal Year 2021 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). F-35 spending was included in the measure. 

“I voted against the NDAA today, a bill that hands nearly three quarters of a trillion dollars to our already bloated Defense Department and out-of-control President [Donald Trump.]”

U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib | Ken Coleman photo

“As a voice and advocate for our frontline communities battling COVID-19 while facing concentrated poverty, growing health care costs, decreasing education funding, and continuous assaults on our environment, I could not support a bill that provides $732 billion for wars and defense contractors while our families struggle to make ends meet during this crisis,” Tlaib added. “I support the long-overdue dismantling of the military-industrial complex so that we can finally put a stop to endless wars and reinvest resources into our communities. This bill does the exact opposite.”

Tlaib, however, did sponsor an amendment that was included in the funding bill, which would ensure that service members operating the F-35 stealth fighter and have been injured because of “technical and design flaws” get the care “they need and deserve.”

The Center for Defense Information at the Project On Government Oversight (POGO) obtained a federal document in 2018 showing how F-35 officials were recategorizing — rather than fixing — major design flaws. POGO is a nonpartisan independent watchdog organization with a headquarters in Washington, D.C. 

“Several of these flaws, like the lack of any means for a pilot to confirm a weapon’s target data before firing, and damage to the plane caused by the tailhook on the Air Force’s variant, have potentially serious implications for safety and combat effectiveness,” a POGO analysis of the Joint Strike Fighter Program Office document reads. 

Each unit of the F-35 will cost $77.9 million in 2021, the Pentagon reported recently. Developed by Lockheed Martin, it is manufactured in Fort Worth, Texas. Its length is 51 feet 5, inches and its wingspan is 35 feet, 1 inch. 

Community leaders weigh in

The Rev. Charles Williams II, a civil rights activist, Detroit church pastor and National Action Network Michigan chair, said that if the production of the F-35 means jobs for Americans and economic opportunities for communities in the United States, he supports Selfridge as a site. 

“Many of the men in our families and communities serve in the military and we should position ourselves as a community to host the United States military,” said Williams, who leads the Historic King Solomon Baptist Church. 

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“Why do we even need that?” asked LaShawn Erby, a spokeswoman for the Metro Lansing chapter of the Michigan Poor People’s Campaign. Her organization has continually requested that the federal government finance and implement strategies to increase domestic spending such as mandating that employers pay their workers $15 per hour for their service. 

Nikki Trim, communications and business outreach director for The FREED Peoples in Grand Rapids, a grassroots advocacy organization supporting BIPOC people, frowned on defense spending in general and F-35 in particular. 

“The United States spends more on our defense budget than the next 10 countries combined, and yet remains woefully behind the international community in terms of providing basic needs like healthcare and education to those in our nation,” said Trim. 

“When a global pandemic arrives and yields devastating results due to a lack of preparedness, infrastructure, and worker protections it’s time to reimagine what we consider to be defense of our communities. We must invest in building our lives and society here, not just building our capacity to dominate others militarily abroad.”

Dan Grazier, a Virginia defense industry analyst affiliated with POGO and U.S. Marine Corps veteran, has been critical of federal spending on the F-35 and has referred to it as a “boondoggle” in the past. 

He believes that American government officials can protect the country with other options that are more effective and efficient. Although he wants to learn more about the opportunity, Grazier said that Michiganders must weigh the cost-benefit of federal spending related to the F-35.

“It certainly seems like a way to create some revenue and bring some jobs to Michigan,” said Grazier. 

Ken Coleman
Ken Coleman covers Southeast Michigan, economic justice and civil rights. He is a former Michigan Chronicle senior editor and served as the American Black Journal segment host on Detroit Public Television. He has written and published four books on black life in Detroit, including Soul on Air: Blacks Who Helped to Define Radio in Detroit and Forever Young: A Coleman Reader. His work has been cited by the Detroit News, Detroit Free Press, History Channel and CNN. Additionally, he was an essayist for the award-winning book, Detroit 1967: Origins, Impacts, Legacies. Ken has served as a spokesperson for the Michigan Democratic Party, Detroit Public Schools, U.S. Sen. Gary Peters and U.S. Rep. Brenda Lawrence. Previously to joining the Advance, he worked for the Detroit Federation of Teachers as a communications specialist. He is a Historical Society of Michigan trustee and a Big Brothers Big Sisters of Metropolitan Detroit advisory board member.