Mountain Home named preferred site for Saudi squadron
The Idaho congressional delegation received notification Friday that Mountain Home Air Force Base has been chosen as the preferred site to host a training mission for the Royal Saudi Air Force.
Placing a training base in the United States is part of a $60 billion arms package the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is purchasing from the U.S., which includes 84 new F-15SA fighter jets and upgrades to the Saudi's current inventory of F-15C fighters.
"This is a process that has been in place for quite some time," said Mountain Home Mayor Tom Rist.
"As city officials we will work closely with Air Force" to address all the concerns that would be associated with any beddown of the Saudi Squadron, he said.
"This is something that is extremely important to the United States government and Mountain Home has always been fiercely loyal to the Air Force and the U.S. government."
"We plan on working closely with everyone to bring this to fruition," he said.
Col. Pete Lee, vice commander of the 366th Fighter Wing at Mountain Home Air Force Base described the announcement as "a great opportunity," for the base, the local community and the region.
Although the details of the mission will be finalized in the Memorandum of Agreement between the two nations, under the U.S.' Strategic Basing process, the RSAF training squadron will likely be composed of 12 aircraft with 50 pilots and 100-200 maintenance personnel, some of whom will bring their families.
Holloman AFB in New Mexico, Hill AFB in Utah and Nellis AFB in Nevada are the other U.S. bases that have been under consideration for the Saudi squadron, but the Air Force has selected Mountain Home as its preferred alternative. Public meetings will be held by the Air Force on the mission and to receive feedback, but the dates for the meetings have not yet been scheduled.
Although the final deal may not be finalized for several months, the Air Force is proceeding with its formal basing process now to identify the best site and Lee said a final decision could be made within 6-12 months.
The Saudis are expected to arrive at Mountain Home in late-2013, with the bulk arriving in 2014, when the actual training mission will begin. The initial deal is expected to be for five years, but a commitment beyond that point is possible, the Air Force has indicated.
Initially, the RSAF would rely on contracted maintenance personnel until their own crews are adequately trained to support the unit's aircraft, but how many contract personnel that would involve is not immediately known. The kingdom current relies on contract personnel within its own nation and part of the proposal to base a unit in the United States is an effort to be self-sufficient with its own maintenance needs. As a result, Col. Lee said, there may be more maintenance personnel with the Saudi arrangement that there are with the Singapore crews.
Construction on needed facilities, which have been preliminarily estimated at $30-50 million on base, could begin as early as some time next year. The exact economic impact would be determined as part of the Environmental Impact Statement that would be prepared prior to the final basing decision and beddown of any units. The Saudi government would bear all costs for basing the squadron. There will be not U.S. taxpayer dollars spent.
For 12-24 months beforehand, RSAF aircrews and maintenance personnel will undergo English language training and professional military training at other U.S. Air Force installations. For the last 25 years, the Air Force has trained over 1,000 pilots, maintainers and support personnel at U.S. bases, but this is the first time the Saudis would stand up a training squadron inside the United States.
The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia screens those sent for training to the United States "to make sure the nation is well represented," and the U.S. Department of States also conducts screenings before issuing any visas to pilots or crews.
State and local leaders embraced the announcement.
"I think it would be great for our economy and great training for both Saudi Arabia and the U.S. partners," said Billy Richey, Idaho Special Assistant for Military Affairs.
"We've found over the last couple years that Singapore has been a great addition to our community. We're looking forward to something simailar with Saudi Arabia," he said.
Col. Lee noted that when the Republic of Singapore placed a training squadron on the base, the direct economic impact on the region totaled over $30 million, with multipliers boosting that to $55 million in just their first year of operation.
Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter said the decision reflected the "great asset" Idaho enjoys with the base and its associated training ranges, adding "we're proud of Mountain Home and Idaho communities that support the military.
Idaho Sen. Jim Risch echoed those thoughts. "With this decision, the Air Force recognizes the unparalleled assets that make Mountain Home Air Force Base second to none," he said.
"Mountain Home already hosts a similar training mission for Singapore's Air Force, and the base's abundant ramp space, desert location, and premiere training ranges make it the ideal location to host another international partner and ensure interoperability between U.S. forces and our allies."
Sen. Mike Crapo added that "Mountain Home Air Force Base is well-positioned to support this important agreement with Saudi Arabia and the training mission with the Royal Saudi Air Force. Idaho's and Mountain Home's support for our national defense and global interest is second to none.
"As we move forward, I will work together with the rest of the delegation to ensure that the local community and the Shoshone-Paiute Tribes are thoroughly briefed and have input to ensure a smooth transition for the base and the local community."
"Mountain Home Air Force Base is a strong national asset and is proud to play a role in securing our nation's defense and protecting U.S. interests at home and abroad," added Congressman Mike Simpson. "I look forward to learning more about this proposal from the Air Force and how it will impact the base, the local community and the state."
"This decision is good news for Mountain Home Air Force Base, which plays a significant role in keeping our country's defense capabilities strong. The community, as well as the nearby Treasure Valley, would also feel an economic benefit from the workers attached to this project," said Congressman Walt Minnick.
"As the Air Force negotiates the Memorandum of Agreement with Saudi Arabia, the delegation will ensure this mission improves U.S. national security and is a benefit for the people of Idaho, the United States, and allies," the state's delegation said in a prepared joint release in advance of the official Air Force announcement.
"The Air Force has stated they will work with the Mountain Home community on any and all cultural awareness issues as both the Saudis and the residents of Idaho prepare for this important mission."
The Air Force has stressed that "Saudi Arabia is a valuable long-term U.S. partner in the (Persian) Gulf. Facilitating the modernization of aircraft as well as enhanced training of the Royal Saudi Air Force would contribute to stability in the region." By training in the United States it would greatly enhance its ability to operate alongside the U.S. Air Force in any coalition actions, and well as improving cultural understanding between the two nations.
Lee said the deal would allow both nations to learn about each other in a more comprehensive manner, adding that such understanding and cross training would help "enhance the stability in the region."
"I look forward to this. There is so much about their culture we don't know," Lee said, and being able to learn from each other would be beneficial to both nations.
Lee said he anticipated the Saudi's would follow similar rules for housing as those used by the Republic of Singapore training squadron on base, which means they will have the ability to live either on base, or in town, but he admitted that more housing facilities could be needed on base.
Maj. Crispin Kretzmann, assigned to the 366th Operations Group and who flies with the bases 389th Fighter Squadron, spent a year in Saudi Arabia flying with their air force, including when they deployed to a Red Flag exercise at Nellis AFB, where he said "they did quite well."
Kretzman said he had met many Saudi military personnel who had trained in the United States "and every one I spoke with said they had enjoyed the experience," along with their families.
He said his year there "was definitely a cultural experience, and one I appreciated.
"One of the things I noticed is they place a high value on respecting their elders, and you can see that in their workforce."
Because of significant cultural differences, it is anticipated that the RSAF unit "would establish the means to continue its cultural and religious practices, to include a place of worship and a school," depending on the number of dependents that come with the RSAF crews, the Air Force has indicated.
There is a large Muslim population in Boise, many refugees from countries such as Bosnia, with at least two mosques in the city, one included as part of the Islamic Cultural Center there. There also are mosques in Twin Falls and Pocatello, in Idaho.
Mountain Home Air Force has always had some American Muslims in its ranks, and more members of the Islamic faith were added with the arrival of the Republic of Singapore training squadron last year, but the base does not keep track of the numbers of personnel acknowledging any particular religious affiliation.