Much celebration has accompanied the announcement that Luke Air Force Base will be the training base for the new F-35 Lightning II fighter. If I read the news story correctly, the claims include 1,000 "permanent direct and indirect jobs," and the program will "bolster" the base's economic impact of $2.2 billion (from 2005). Winning the F-35 gives Luke a future as F-16 pilot training winds down over the next 11 years. Republic editorialists strained to tell how about how this West Valley "coup" was good for the East Valley. Mesa Mayor Scott Smith wrote how this enhances the region's dream of being an aerospace hub. On the other side of town, it seemed necessary to celebrate the benefits for Little League and dry cleaners.
As usual, it's left to Homey to sun on the parade.
Despite all the professed love for Luke, the Real Estate Industrial Complex has been encroaching for years on a base that was once separated by many miles from the urban area. The difficult route that pilots must fly, especially when armed for exercises on the Goldwater range, and the danger to nearby subdivisions is one of the many unexplored local stories. As for the new house-owners who find out just how loud a fighter jet is...suckers. By the mid-2000s, land brokers were feverishly assembling parcels even closer to Luke for new tract houses and some very powerful land-owners were, er, tepid in their support of continued Air Force operations. This was a quiet but fierce clash that went on even as the Pentagon wondered whether it was safe and economical to continue such a large training base so close to residential development.
But for all the cheerleading, the ambivalence over Luke is still there. If the growth machine should somehow restart, so will the tension.
As for the economic impact claims...I don't know what they mean. What is the context? What are the opportunity costs? What is crowded out? A thousand "direct and indirect" jobs in a metro area the size of Phoenix isn't very much, particularly if those indirect jobs include the workers at the dry cleaners. In San Diego, residential encroachment eventually played a role in the loss of the "Top Gun" school and the turning over of a much-diminished Miramar base to the Marines. But San Diego has grown into a world-class technology hub, so the change was barely felt (and the Navy remains big). Phoenix lacks such an engine, even with Intel's Chandler operations, so I suppose Luke looms larger.
How this translates to a strategy to transform "the Valley" into a major aerospace cluster is even more puzzling. Drunk on population growth and housing for decades, the local yokels ignored the aerospace sector that had been painstakingly put in place in the 1950s and 1960s. Most of it went away. What remains are legacy operations, such as the helicopter plant in Mesa now owned by Boeing. Arizona isn't willing to spend the incentives that South Carolina used to lure a Boeing Dreamliner plant or Alabama deployed to attract Airbus. Even these won't create the major ecosystem of a Seattle or Toulouse. What's the plan? Luke, like the defunct Williams Air Force Base, is just a training operation, with extremely small spin-off effects, if any, to building an aerospace cluster.
Finally, it's critical to note that the F-35 is not the F-16. The F-35 joint strike fighter program has been deeply problematic for the Pentagon. It was intended to be, as the New York Times put it, "the arms program that broke the mold, proof that the Pentagon could build something affordable, dependable and without much drama." It was supposed to be the next-generation fighter that could be mass produced for the Air Force, Navy and Marines, as well as exported to allies. "But rather than being the Chevrolet of the skies, as it was once billed, the F-35 has become the Pentagon’s biggest budget-buster. As such, the F-35 would be especially vulnerable should $500 billion in automatic defense budget cuts go into effect starting in January 2013."
Forbes ran an article recently saying the F-35 is "progressing nicely." What most readers don't know is that the writer is Loren Thompson of the Lexington Institute, a right-wing think tank heavily funded by the Military-Industrial Complex. So make of this piece what you will. In any event, only about 63 of these very expensive airplanes have been built, compared with 4,500 F-16s.
So "good news"? Sure. But it doesn't solve metro Phoenix's lack of a diverse, competitive economy. It doesn't even answer the long-term questions that hover over Luke Air Force Base.