Squadrons going, F-35s coming in the next 15 years

Cherry Point stands on the cusp of change. And so does Havelock and the surrounding communities.

Billions of dollars are at stake as Cherry Point loses planes and personnel while the transition to the new F-35B Joint Strike Fighter takes place, a process that will take more than a decade.

Cherry Point’s most recent economic impact summary showed a $2.04 billion footprint on the region’s economy, with everything from salaries to construction contracts affecting the area.

According to an economic study by the N.C. Department of Commerce and N.C. Military Affairs Commission, Craven County ranks third in the state for military contracts with $194.9 million. Onslow County, home to Camp Lejeune and New River, ranked second at $590.5 million.

According to the study, about 578,000 jobs, or one in 10 employees in the state, have jobs that are connected to the military, generating $34 billion in personal income. At Cherry Point, 7,571 active-duty military personnel work at the base, with another 4,365 civilians employed. But, the numbers have been declining slightly compared to previous years as budget cuts and sequestration have had an impact.

But what has the biggest potential to impact the region’s economy is a transitional period that is expected to begin next year. The base will lose its four squadrons of EA-6B Prowlers – one each year over the next four years - as the Marine Corps gets out of the electronic warfare aircraft business.

The base’s AV-8B Harrier squadrons won’t completely go away but are scheduled to transition to the new F-35B Joint Strike Fighter beginning in 2022.

Heavy Marine Helicopter Squadron 366, which was activated in October of 2008 at Cherry Point, will soon be leaving for its permanent home at New River.

But despite those losses, activity on the base won’t come to a stop.

“There are multiple military construction projects planned here over the next five fiscal years,” said Mike Barton, deputy director of public affairs at Cherry Point. “The key word here is ‘planned.’ Budgets are moving targets right up until Congress approves them. Military construction projects, especially because of their costs and complexity, are planned for years before they are actually funded.”

He said military construction projects are built into the Future Years Defense Program, which is the financial plan for the Department of Defense over a six-year period. He said the plan is under constant review and gets updated when needed. It also is subject to budget proposals from Congress and the president.

“The Marine Corps continually reviews these FYDP plans as it develops future budget submissions,” Barton said. “The bottom line is that these numbers can change at any time before a given year’s budget is approved by Congress. Ultimately, Congress decides if and when (military construction) is funded when it approves the DOD budget each year.”

The most recent FYDP includes several “planned” projects for Cherry Point, including $29.7 million for unmanned aerial systems facilities and $4.8 million for a KC-130J enlisted air crew trainer facility for fiscal year 2016-17.

The construction projects could bring workers to the area or keep others in the area employed, thus providing a lift to the area economy as some military personnel are lost.

Base security improvements – required before the arrival of F-35 squadrons to Cherry Point – are scheduled for 2019-20, as are two hangar modules.

Barton stressed that the plan is based on the projected needs of the Marine Corps.

“Not only could those needs change before congressional approval of the FY-19 budget, they will be subject to other budgetary challenges in the congressional approval process,” Barton said.

The Marine Corps East Coast F-35B Basing Environmental Impact Study that dates to 2010 also calls for construction projects before the arrival of the new squadrons. They include the demolition of five hangars and the creation of five new hangar modules.

The existing air traffic control tower is planned for demolition and relocation. New armament and engine shops were to be constructed, and vertical lift pads were slated for upgrades.

The existing airfield operations building was tabbed for demolition and reconstruction with new airfield pavement added or modified.

Security upgrades and other projects were also scheduled for the landing field at Bogue in Carteret County.

The plan is for the projects to be completed in the next 15 years. The sixth F-35B squadron is scheduled to arrive at Cherry Point in 2029 to 2030, with a planned reserve squadron to follow in a couple of years.

Overall, compared to present day Cherry Point, 2030 Cherry Point would have more planes and slightly fewer personnel, according to Marine Corps plans.

“At the end of the transition, Cherry Point, we’re looking at a net increase of two aircraft and an estimated personnel decrease of only 500 people,” Barton said. “In the scale of everything else, I’d say it’s a pretty small number. From beginning to end, it’s not a significant dip in personnel.”