Air Force document hints at new Cannon aircraft

Courtesy photo: An MQ-1 Predator unmanned aerial vehicle is armed with an AGM-114 Hellfire missile. The Predator’s primary mission is interdiction and conducting armed reconnaissance.

The Associated Press

ALBUQUERQUE — The skies above New Mexico could see very different military aircraft in the future under a “road map” for the Air Force that means potential changes for the state’s three bases.

The document, released Wednesday, offers hints about what aircraft might be based at the reconfigured Cannon Air Force Base near Clovis, outlines possible new missions for the New Mexico Air National Guard at Kirtland Air Force Base in Albuquerque and repeats proposals to put F-22 Raptors at Holloman Air Force Base near Alamogordo.

Potential aircraft for the bases include the remotely controlled MQ-1 Predator, the unmanned MQ-9 Reaper and CV-22 tiltrotor Osprey at Cannon; the CSAR-X combat search and rescue helicopter and the F-35 Lightning joint strike fighter at Kirtland; and the F-22 Raptor fighter at Holloman.

But nothing will happen soon, and Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., said it’s not a done deal.

“This is a sort of long-term view of where the Air Force would hope to go with some of its aircraft over the next 10 or 15 years or even longer,” Bingaman said.

Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., said it will be years before the Air Force plan becomes reality.

“But I think the important thing is that our bases are in the thick of things and being considered for new missions,” he said. “The coming years bring great possibilities.”

The road map is a long-term plan to modernize the Air Force, outlining the next generation of weapons systems and where they might be based in the United States. The Air Force said it will have fewer planes in the future, but the service will be more efficient and flexible.

“We’re simply promising a look at these systems and installations as our planning continues,” Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. T. Michael Moseley said in a new release announcing the plan. “This is the Air Force’s planning process for the future.”

Bases that meet preliminary standards for the missions will undergo environmental studies and operational analyses, the Air Force said. The studies, which will take several years, will determine the final plan and how it will be phased in.

The Defense Department recommended in 2005 that Cannon be closed, but instead it got new life as a special operations base. It activated the 27th Special Operations Wing last October, and earlier this month, received the first of three PC-12s expected this year. Eventually, Cannon will be home to 10 of the single-engine planes.

The Defense Department has said previously that Cannon would get new aircraft such as the MC-130W Combat Spear, the MQ-1 Predator, CV-22 Ospreys and AC-130 gunships. Special Operations Command officials have said about a dozen MC-130Ws will be assigned there by 2009.

Holloman, established in 1942, had been home to the nation’s only stealth fighter wing. However, the Bush administration decided to phase out the aging stealth F-117 and replace it with F-22 Raptors — currently the Air Force’s newest fighter aircraft — over the next few years.

Kirtland, created in the 1930s, has taken a lead in special operations training for the Air Force. In 2006, it received combat configured CV-22 Ospreys, which take off and land like a helicopter but fly like an airplane after their rotors shift from vertical to horizontal.

The base is one of 33 nationwide being studied for the F-35, an aircraft that is expected to go into service in 2013. Rep. Heather Wilson, R-N.M., said locating F-35s at Kirtland would ensure an active Air National Guard for years since the F-16 aircraft now flown by the unit is aging and is slated to be retired.