Buckley Air Force Base could get three dozen stealth fighters and a school to train allied pilots on the F-35 Lightning II in a deal pushed by Democratic U.S. Rep. Jason Crow.
The school would bring hundreds of airmen to the Aurora base and make the facility now known for its space missions a key hub in the Pentagon program to sell the Lockheed plane to allies from Singapore to the United Kingdom. While Crow can't put an exact dollar figure on the value of the deal, he said it would bring hundreds of millions in construction cash and a big boost to Aurora.
"It's been an issue we're advocating for and we have been advocating for since day one of taking office," the freshman congressman who serves on the House Armed Services Committee said. "There's room for growth at Buckley. It's good for the economy and it's good for national defense." Crow represents the state's 6th Congressional District, which includes Aurora and parts of Adams and Douglas counties.
Buckley is home to the Colorado National Guard's 140th Fighter Wing and its aging fleet of F-16 fighters. Boosters of the base have worked for nearly a decade to get F-35s there because the new jet is expected to be in the Air Force inventory well into the 2050s. The new jet could help the last military base in the Denver metropolitan area fend off any future downsizing efforts.
The Air Force this month said Buckley is one of five finalists to house the school, with bases in Arkansas, Texas, Indiana and Michigan also vying for it.
Crow said Buckley is leading that pack because of long-term efforts to build a buffer zone around it that left room for growth.
"It's great that it has space, which you know is at a premium," Crow said.
The buffer will also help keep peace with neighbors if Buckley gets the much louder F-35, which has been measured at 146 decibels when its single jet engine is cranked up to full military power, about 16 decibels louder than a Led Zeppelin concert.
"We have set aside that buffer to make sure there isn't encroachment and development where there would be that noise," Crow said.
Getting the new jets would represent the largest military growth the Denver-area has experienced after decades of military downsizing. In cuts that followed the end of the Cold War, the Denver area lost the Rocky Mountain Arsenal, Lowry Air Force Base and Fitzsimons Army Medical Center, leaving Buckley as the last bastion of what was once a massive military community.
The F-35 is the newest fighter in the military's arsenal and was designed to replace three aging aircraft: The Air Force's F-16, the Navy's F-18 and the Marine Corps' vertical take-off AV-8B Harrier.
The new fighter program represents the most expensive weapons purchase in Pentagon history, with a cost approaching $500 billion. The military plans on buying hundreds of the planes, with an individual purchase price ranging from $75 million to $100 million, depending on options.
Its high price tag delivers one of the world's best fighters: highly maneuverable, virtually invisible to enemy radar, and able to blaze through the air at Mach 1.6 (more than 1,200 miles per hour) while carrying a mix of bombs and missiles.
Crow said he is hoping to deliver more than just the new fighters for Buckley. The base is in the running to house U.S. Space Command, a unit with 1,400 troops that's now provisionally located in Colorado Springs. Aurora is among the 56 cities in 26 states that have submitted bids for the command.
Buckley now houses satellite troops who track missile launches around the globe and the Aerospace Data Facility, which is a clearinghouse for satellite intelligence.
Crow said Buckley wants the command, but locals wouldn't revolt if it stays in Colorado Springs.
"We have been pushing really hard for it and the delegation is completely in support of that effort," Crow said. "First and foremost it needs to be in Colorado ... if it is in the Springs, it is a win for the state and a win for my district too."
The timeline for decisions on the fighter school and the Space Command are similar, with Pentagon leaders spending the fall examining bids and announcing winners in early 2021.