State lawmakers are urging military officials to take another fly-by of Atlantic City International Airport to check it out as a potential home for the F-35 fighter jet.
The airport is a major employer in South Jersey, and it already hosts squadrons of F-16s assigned to the New Jersey Air National Guard’s 177th Fighter Wing.
But replacing those aging jets with F-35s is considered crucial to maintaining the airport’s long-term economic vitality. State lawmakers from both political parties have signed on to efforts to market the airport as a prime base for the Air Force’s newer fighter jets.
The lawmakers’ official sales pitch to the federal military is included in a resolution that has won widespread support in both houses of the Legislature. It focuses on the airport’s strategic location between Washington, D.C. and New York City, and highlights defense services that the 177th has been providing since the 1950s.
Effort to broaden local economy
“The 177th has vast experience in homeland defense and air-to-ground missions,” said Assemblyman John Armato, who was a primary sponsor of the legislation backing the replacement of the F-16s with F-35s. (The resolution passed the Assembly by a 73-0-1 margin last week, and in a prior vote, cleared the Senate 40-0.)
“The 177th stands ready to take on this enormous responsibility,” said Armato (D-Atlantic).
The military is one of the largest employers in New Jersey, ranking behind only the state government in total employees. As part of that presence, the 177th Fighter Wing has been employing pilots and other support staff since 1958 at Atlantic City International, which is actually located just outside the seaside resort in nearby Egg Harbor Township. (In all, the airport, which also hosts the Federal Aviation Administration’s William J. Hughes Tech Center, as well as some commercial flights, employs more than 4,500 people.)
But state lawmakers have also been eyeing the airport in recent years as a prime site for generating more economic development for the region amid ongoing efforts to broaden the local economy following the decline of the casino industry. Despite some recent upticks, the unemployment rate in the Atlantic City area continues to be higher than for the state as a whole, according to jobs data from the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Campaigning for the F-35
The push to market Atlantic City Airport as a potential home for F-35s was first launched several years ago as the Department of Defense began looking for places to locate the newer jets as they came off the assembly line.
New Jersey missed out in an initial selection process as air bases in Vermont and Wisconsin were picked by the Air Force. But U.S. Reps. Jeff Van Drew and Donald Norcross, both D-NJ, have continued to make the case for Atlantic City in recent months, and state lawmakers have also participated by drafting and passing their official resolution of support.
Among other items, the legislative resolution highlights the history of the 177th, including its role following the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. The resolution also notes the facilities used by the 177th can already accommodate the F-35s with little modification, thus minimizing the impact on taxpayers.
“The 177th Fighter Wing is a premier Air National Guard facility, is a critical asset in the planning and execution of national security decisions, and this State supports its selection as one of the locations to base the United States Air Force F-35 fighter jets,” the resolution said.
To be sure, the state lawmakers’ adoption of the resolution has no direct impact on decisions made by the DOD, which uses its own evaluation process to select sites for specific missions. But the lawmakers are hoping their resolution demonstrates just how much support the F-35s have in New Jersey after recent reports have suggested some residents in Wisconsin may not be thrilled with that state’s selection as a host for the fighter jets.
“We in New Jersey would be proud to see our Air National Guard selected to carry out this important duty,” said Assemblyman Wayne DeAngelo (D-Mercer.)
“The 177th Fighter Wing has the strength, expertise and resources to house the F-35 fighter jets,” added Armato.