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Whitmer pledges $100M in state cash to land new fighter jets at Selfridge


Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has pledged nearly $100 million in improvements to the facilities and infrastructure of Selfridge Air National Guard base in a bid to get the U.S. Department of Defense to station a new set of fighter jets at the Harrison Township base.

Whitmer's commitment of state tax dollars for the base was included in a Jan. 12 letter to U.S. Secretary of the Air Force Frank Kendall III requesting a new mission for Selfridge, according to a copy of the letter obtained by The Detroit News.

"I reiterate again that I am prepared to do all I can to ensure that the replacement of the A10 with a future fighter mission at Selfridge is a cost-effective opportunity for the Air Force," Whitmer wrote. "I repeat my commitment to funding upgrades, which would significantly reduce the cost to the Air Force by almost $100 million."

"I look forward to sharing more with you about the next steps in this commitment as we solidify our state budget in the next few weeks," Whitmer added.

The governor's office confirmed Monday the nearly $100 million pledge — which would have to be blessed by the Legislature — is part of an ongoing effort to get President Joe Biden's administration to select Selfridge to be the home of a new squadron of fighter jets to replace an aging fleet of A-10 Warthog planes.

Last year, lawmakers appropriated $6.1 million toward upgrades at Selfridge, which would be part of the overall $100 million commitment, Whitmer spokesman Bobby Leddy said.

In her annual speech to the Legislature scheduled for Wednesday, the first in-person address since February 2020, Whitmer will urge the Biden administration to assign a new fighter mission to the base and secure Selfridge's future, the governor's office told The News.

The Democratic governor won't be asking the Democratic-controlled Legislature on Wednesday for the full $100 million during the State of the State address, her spokesman said.

The governor's proposed 2024 fiscal year budget, which is normally presented to lawmakers in early February, is still being finalized, Leddy said.

Other states have pledged state tax dollars to improve facilities for retaining or expanding military installations, likening it to any other form of economic development, he said.

"It's site development," Leddy said.

Whitmer and Michigan's congressional delegation have been lobbying for a long-term F-35 presence at Selfridge, as it would help ensure that the base would stay open with a new stream of pilots and their families. The Air Force has signaled Selfridge is a backup option for a planned international F-35 training center at Fort Smith Regional Airport in Arkansas. A final decision is expected in the spring.

'It's important to our state'

The Air Force's years-long retirement of A-10 Warthog planes looms over the future of the Macomb County military base. Selfridge has been passed over several times as a potential base for new fighter jets like the F-35.

"The Michigan National Guard and their families make so many sacrifices to keep us safe and we have to have their backs,” Whitmer said in a statement. “That’s why we are calling on the Biden administration to give Selfridge a new fighter mission and recapitalize the one they are taking away. Getting this done will secure good-paying jobs in Macomb County and ensure our military families can stay in Michigan. We all want to build on Michigan’s defense industry leadership and we must get this done.”

Whitmer's planned remarks in her Wednesday night speech at the state Capitol come on the heels of private efforts the governor has made to get Selfridge on the Biden administration's radar. In December, she met Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks at the Pentagon on the issue.

In the Jan. 12 letter to Kendall, Whitmer said Selfridge creates an estimated $850 million in economic impact statewide, supporting about 5,000 military and civilian support personnel.

Prior to his Senate confirmation in 2021, Kendall pledged to retain and modernize the squadron of A-10s at Selfridge in Harrison Township for at least the next decade, “into the 2030s and beyond." That commitment caused U.S. Sen. Gary Peters, D-Bloomfield Township, to end his hold on Biden's nomination of Kendall to lead the Air Force.

John Griffith, commander of the Michigan chapter of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, said he is concerned that once the A-10s are fully retired from every base, Selfridge would close, barring the addition of a new fighter jet to Selfridge's runways.

Preserving a mission at Selfridge is critical for veterans in need of service years after they serve the country, Griffith said.

"We have thousands of veterans here in the state of Michigan. They only have a few bases to which they can go and reap the services that they've earned during their service," Griffith said. "It's important to our state ... if you look at the jobs that base supplies and outside of the base it supports."

In July, Whitmer, Sen. Debbie Stabenow of Lansing and Rep. Elissa Slotkin of Lansing met with Kendall at Selfridge as part of the ongoing campaign to keep it a functioning Air Force base after the last A-10 planes are retired at a date uncertain.

Stabenow told The News back in July that conversations from the visit went well and other opportunities may come Selfridge's way in the future. But to be a fully activated Air Force base, a fighter mission would be necessary, she said.

"Whether it is F-35s, whether it's something else, it's just important for the Air Force to completely understand that all of the capacity here, the retention rates, all of the assets that come from all parts of our national security force that are here," Stabenow said.

Macomb County showcases base

In the 2023 budget for the fiscal year, $6.1 million is allocated to make improvements to Selfridge to put it in the optimal position to be picked to be a home for future fighter missions.

Griffith said he applauds the governor for her commitment to supporting the future of service members in Michigan and her commitment to advocating for veterans once they come home.

More than 4,000 businesses are involved with the defense and aerospace industries in Michigan, providing almost 166,000 jobs, according to Whitmer's office.

Macomb County has leaned into defense manufacturing in recent years, boasting nearly $7 billion in contracts in 2022, County Executive Mark Hackel said during his State of the County address at the end of last year.

In a Monday interview, Hackel said he doesn't expect Selfridge to shut down even if it went without a fighter mission for a period of time.

The base in Harrison Township has been a runner-up for different missions and training opportunities, and that speaks to it still being viewed as valuable by different federal agencies, Hackel said.

"There are so many characteristics and aspects of Selfridge that make it a formidable installation for the nation's defense. There's many reasons and many opportunities we've had to showcase that," Hackel said. "I think we've done a lot of work over time that has really helped showcase that on a national level."

Peters echoed those sentiments, saying Monday that Selfridge has "cutting-edge defense capabilities."

"And that’s why I have pressed for and secured commitments from the Department of Defense that it will continue to play a key role in our long-term national defense strategy," Peters said in a statement.

anichols@detroitnews.com

Washington Bureau Chief Melissa Nann Burke contributed.