The possibility of getting another foreign-nation training squadron at Mountain Home Air Force Base is something this community should embrace.
We're not going to get an F-35 squadron, even though shortly after the first of the year some hearings will be held locally as part of the basing process, but they'll just be a formality to meet the law. The first of those planes are going elsewhere. More importantly, the F-35 program is now four years behind schedule and could slip even further, so even if we were to suddenly see a change in the decision and get them, it would be a long time before we ever saw one on the runways here. In addition, there's a good chance the next Congress will cut -- significantly -- the number of aircraft that will be purchased.
Meanwhile, we keep losing squadrons on base. The F-15Cs disappeared this fall, leaving the base with only two U.S. Air Force flying squadrons, plus the Republic of Singapore training squadron. That's down significantly from the heady days of the composite wing that was stationed on the base in the late 1990s.
The base is horribly underutilized, and the lack of personnel there has had a significant impact on the local economy, which remains heavily dependent upon what goes on at the airbase.
So another squadron would be a good thing, and the $30 million to $50 million in anticipated construction that would go along with it would be a major boost to the local economy and help drive the unemployment rate here downward from its current near-record highs. We could really use the jobs that would come with the squadron. It wouldn't hurt, either, that the Saudi government is known for its generosity and largesse in areas where it is made to feel welcome.
We believe the majority of people in this area would welcome the Saudi training squadron. There's a lot of people around here who've spent time in the Mideast, so the cultural learning curve wouldn't be that great.
Of course, some small-minded people will see a squadron of Muslims here as a threat. They shouldn't. Over the years, we've constantly stressed the distinction between a religion and terrorists (or anyone else) who misuse their religion as a front for their hate. Most Muslims are good, kind people. They believe in the same God of Abraham to which Christians and Jews pray, and all three religions enjoy the same historical religious foundation. Any good historian could easily argue that the differences and animosities between those groups have been ultimately the result of power politics than anything else.
The Saudi government is, even by the standards of the Mideast, a religiously conservative group. It guards two of the three holiest sites in the Islamic world -- Mecca and Medina -- and takes those responsibilities seriously.
It also stands high on al-Queda's target list as a state to be attacked and toppled, which is one of the reasons the Saudis have vigorously worked to remove the terrorists' presence in their country and shared vital intelligence with the United States (the recent "copier bombs" being a good example).
The royal family's leadership is almost all western educated, and there are some very smart, competent people in that group. They enjoy the perks that come with being a working monarchy, but there also is no question they work hard to better the lives of their citizens. If you look at all the failed states, brutal dictatorships and corrupt "democracies" around the planet, the Saudis come off as clearly one of the good guys in the world.
Their government and culture are simply different from what most Americans are used to in their own backyard, but one of Mountain Home's strengths is how cosmopolitan we are. The majority of people here are smart and have enough world experience to know the rest of the world usually does things differently than we do. Different doesn't necessarily mean wrong. It just means different.
We embraced and readily assimilated the Republic of Singapore squadron here, with its Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists and Muslims. It's been seamless. That's why we believe the Saudi squadron also would find an equally warm welcome here.
And in the long run, it would help cement an important strategic partnership with the United States, which also would greatly improve our own national security. They will learn from us and take those lessons home with them, and we will learn from them. That level of understanding will pay enormous dividends down the road for both nations.
We hope that today, or at least within the next week, the United States and the government of Saudi Arabia sign off on a basing agreement that would add another squadron at Mountain Home AFB. We think this is a perfect place to do it.
It is something that all of us can, and should, welcome with open arms.