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The Air National Guard’s Truax Field in Madison was named a finalist Wednesday for deployment of a new generation of fighter jets that could protect the base and its hundreds of employees the next time the Pentagon looks to cut spending by closing military installations.

The Air Force announced in June that Truax was one of 18 Air National Guard locations being considered as one of two bases for the growing fleet of F-35 jets.

The announcement Wednesday narrowed the list to five, and sparked the unveiling of a local campaign to win the high-tech aircraft as a way of securing the economic benefits the area receives from the base on Madison’s North Side.

Truax is home to the Air National Guard’s 115th Fighter Wing and a group of F-16 jets that are among the oldest still in operation.

Being selected for the 18 F-35s would help protect Truax when the military re-evaluates its needs. The base was scrutinized in 2005 during the last national base realignment process.

If it is chosen for the F-35 next year, the base would be less vulnerable during the realignment process that is expected in 2019 even though the jets wouldn’t arrive until 2022.

Truax employs 445 men and women full-time in addition to 700 guard members who participate in drills, said Greater Madison Chamber of Commerce president Zach Brandon.

The chamber has contracted with two advisers with military expertise in Washington, D.C., and raised $100,000 for its efforts to bring the fighters to Madison in conjunction with the Badger Air Community Council, a support group for the base, Brandon said.

Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Madison, has sought improvements at Truax for several years, and voiced support for F-35 deployment there in a hearing with a top Air Force official in April.

“We are proving ourselves to be a very strong competitor and I am going to continue my work being a leading advocate for the 115th Fighter Wing at Truax,” Baldwin said in a statement.

A spokeswoman for Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Oshkosh, said he also has discussed Truax with an Air Force official. Republican Gov. Scott Walker said in a statement that Truax offers the military more than 10,000 square miles of military operating airspace and access to Volk Field Air National Guard Base in Camp Douglas 90 miles to the northwest.

Communities seeking Defense Department programs typically mount public relations campaigns, and in some cases opponents organize, too.

“But the way this is set up, that is no part of the decision process,” Ann Stefanek, a Washington-based Air Force spokeswoman, said of such campaigns.

Bases rated on several factors

The original 18 bases were picked because they had certain basic facilities needed for fighter jets. Each of those locations then submitted more detailed information on features they offered.

They were scored for their mission readiness, which includes factors such as weather, available airspace and access to training ranges; physical amenities like hangars, runways and ramp space; other environmental factors; and cost, Stefanek said.

The five finalists were the ones that scored highest. Stefanek said the Air Force won’t release the scores. The finalists all start on equal ground, and are evaluated based on information gathered by a single team of analysts who will visit each site to document conditions, she said.

“The Air Force is committed to a deliberate and open process to address F-35 basing,” said Jennifer A. Miller, deputy assistant secretary of the Air Force for installations. “As we progress through the basing process, we will share information so interested communities are aware of what to expect.”

Surveys will assess sites based on “operational requirements, potential impacts to existing missions, infrastructure and manpower, and then develop cost estimates,” the Air Force release said.

By June the Air Force hopes to announce tentative selections of two bases, and one or more “reasonable alternatives” pending the results of detailed environmental impact analyses, which are completed before choices are finalized, Stefanek said.

The Chamber of Commerce said Truax provides $100 million in economic impact annually and other benefits, including costly Air National Guard firefighting equipment that is used at the adjacent Dane County Regional Airport.

Local Air National Guard commanders make the point about the base’s economic impact when addressing concerns about the noise from F-16s, said Paul Rusk, a member of the Dane County Airport Commission committee that fields complaints about jet noise from Truax and the adjacent regional airport.

The chamber cited a study indicating the F-35 created no more noise than the F-16.

Jet admired among pilots

About 200 F-35s have been deployed for testing, training and operational use. Eight bases either have or are scheduled to receive the aircraft, said Joe DellaVedova, spokesman for the Pentagon office overseeing the purchases of 2,443 F-35s over 20 years.

The 2014 price tag of $108 million per plane was lower than in the previous year and the cost is projected to keep going down as production speeds up, DellaVedova said.

The aircraft has a top speed of about 1,200 mph, which is comparable to other fighter jets, but F-35s are outfitted with highly advanced air warfare technology, DellaVedova said. They are equipped with six cameras, radar and advanced software to give pilots a great advantage over older aircraft, he said.

“The capacity this airplane delivers is eye-watering,” DellaVedova said. “You talk to the pilots, there’s no other plane they want to fly. It’s like going from a rotary phone to a cellphone.”

The value of the older F-16s like those at Truax is waning. When air bases are closed, they have been retired instead of being moved to other installations.

The other four finalists are Dannelly Field, Montgomery, Alabama; Gowen Field, Boise, Idaho; Jacksonville Air National Guard Base in Florida; and Selfridge Air National Guard Base, Detroit, Michigan.

Site surveys will be conducted by the Air Force Air Combat Command, based in Langley, Virginia, and the Washington, D.C.-based Air National Guard command.

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Steven Verburg is a reporter for the Wisconsin State Journal covering state politics with a focus on science and the environment as well as military and veterans issues.