Ground crews check an F-35 before the pilot arrives to fly it at Luke Air Force Base. (Photo by Nicole Neri/Cronkite News)
Luke AFB F-35 funds at risk over border wall emergency
Arizona lawmakers vowed to fight the loss of any funding at Luke Air Force Base, where up to $40 million in construction projects could be tapped for border wall funding under President Donald Trump’s national emergency declaration.
Pentagon officials have not said where they plan to get the $3.6 billion the president wants redirected toward the wall, but Luke projects are among the $8.2 billion in the military construction budget for this fiscal year, according to data released by the House Appropriations Committee.
The two projects scheduled for Luke both involve support for the new F-35 fighter jets, with $23 million for a maintenance unit and a $17 million for an operations center for F-35A squad ops 6.
“It is completely inappropriate to use any resources that would be diverted from the important mission of Luke,” said Rep. Greg Stanton, D-Phoenix. He called the F-35 mission “so important to Luke Air Force Base, the mission of Luke and national security.”
Rep. Debbie Lesko, R-Peoria, whose district includes the base, said she has contacted Luke, the White House and the Pentagon, but cautioned that it is “simply too early to determine what, if any, impact the president’s declaration of a national emergency may have on Luke.”
But Lesko said in a statement from her office that she is “doing everything in my power to protect our nation, Luke Air Force Base and the F-35.”
Lesko also said she still supports the president’s emergency declaration, however, blaming Senate Democrats for the government shutdown in December that she said forced the president to declare a national emergency.
Trump on Friday signed a budget bill that headed off another government shutdown, but included $1.375 billion for border wall construction – well below his demand for $5.7 billion that sparked the 35-day shutdown.
While signing the bill, Trump also declared a national emergency to stop the “invasion” of drugs and people at the southern border. The emergency, he said, allowed him to divert $6.6 billion from other accounts toward construction of a wall, bringing the total this year to $8 billion.
The White House pledged that any money used this year would be “back-filled” in next year’s budget. In the meantime, however, most of the redirected money comes from the Defense Department, with $3.6 billion set to come from the budget for military construction projects like those at Luke.
In comments to reporters Saturday, acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan said the Pentagon has not yet decided which projects will be tapped. He said because of the amount of money that can potentially be redirected, the department “always anticipated that this will create a lot of attention.”
“You can imagine the concern this generates,” Shanahan said according to a Pentagon transcript of the meeting. “So very deliberately we have not made any decisions.”
Calls to Luke and to the Pentagon for updates Tuesday were not immediately returned.
Rep. Ruben Gallego, D-Phoenix, blasted Trump’s plan to use military dollars for a border wall shortly after it was announced Friday.
“Trump’s decision to declare a fake national emergency and illegally use taxpayer dollars intended to support our service members is an attack on our nation’s most sacred traditions and institutions,” Gallego, a veteran and member of the House Armed Services Committee, said Friday.
Trump’s declaration split members of the state’s congressional delegation along party lines last week. But Stanton said he hopes that “even though there may be disagreement on whether President Trump should have declared a national emergency,” members of the delegation can work together to ensure Luke does not lose money.
“I’m hopeful that in a bipartisan way all members of the Arizona delegation will stand firm and say, ‘Don’t take a penny from Luke Air Force Base,'” Stanton said.
Story by ANDREW HOWARD, Cronkite News