Tuesday, Oct. 24, 2006 | Decision time was drawing near. It was June 5, and the airport authority was meeting to finalize its position on Miramar. The active Marine base was minutes away from being chosen as the next airport site for the Nov. 7 ballot.

Maj. Gen. Michael Lehnert, a senior Marine Corps official, stood up to tell the authority about Miramar’s future military role. While authority officials suggested that the F-18 fighter jet at Miramar would soon be phased out – clearing the way for a commercial airport at the base – Lehnert insisted that the F-18’s replacement aircraft was headed to one of two places: Yuma or Miramar.

And Miramar, Lehnert said, was “the airport that is most under evaluation” to house the supersonic F-35 – known as the Joint Strike Fighter.

In other words, Miramar wasn’t going to be available to host an international airport. Ever.

But in the weeks and months since then, the future of Miramar has been tied to a debate about the sleek new fighter’s future.

A week after Lehnert said the new airplane could go to Yuma or Miramar, airport authority supporters began touting a Marine Corps document that showed the Joint Strike Fighter heading to Yuma – not Miramar. Whether or not it was the Marines’ official position – they said the Yuma brief was old and outdated – the document boosted airport authority supporters. Once available online, the plan has since been pulled.

“As soon as that internal document became public, they were out disavowing it,” said William D. Lynch, an airport authority board member who supports the Miramar initiative. “It really stretches credulity.”

Soon after, Marine officials sought a stronger-worded statement about the Joint Strike Fighter’s future at Miramar, according to e-mails between senior Marine officials written in July and August and obtained by voiceofsandiego.org. One official, Lt. Gen. John Castellaw, the Marine Corps’ deputy commandant for aviation, thought the move was “overreacting,” according to an e-mail. But the new guidance was announced in August.

With a few environmental caveats, the new policy said the Joint Strike Fighter was headed to Miramar.

In other words: Miramar definitely can’t hold an international airport.

The e-mail string and the debate about the Joint Strike Fighter highlight the political maneuvering on both sides of the airport ballot initiative. And they point to the underlying question about Miramar and its role in both the authority’s ballot initiative and in national defense: Could the Marines give up their base, move elsewhere and still successfully train aviators?

For both sides, the answer to that question has become wrapped up in the stealthy new fighter’s future.

When the Marines released their new long-term planning policy from Gen. John Goodman – called “basing statement guidance” – they said it was unrelated to the ballot initiative.

But according the internal e-mails, the airport authority was a clear consideration when drafting the new policy. John Stimson, Miramar’s civilian attorney, acknowledged in the e-mails that the policy could produce the “potential perception that this is a reaction designed only to stave off joint use” of the airfield by civilians and Marines.

“On the other hand,” he wrote, “the operators want a strong official statement on the JSF (Joint Strike Fighter) at Miramar.”

Maj. Jason Johnston, a Miramar spokesman, acknowledged the airport authority’s push – and use of the Yuma brief – “perhaps” made the Marines “a little bit more vocal about our future plans than we normally would be.”

The new Joint Strike Fighter policy, which was issued in August, was an attempt to clarify the Marines’ long-term plans, Johnston said, because the new airport’s supporters were touting an outdated Yuma brief. But the airport authority’s decision was not the reason the Marines are planning to move the fighter to Miramar, he said. Those plans have been in development since 2005, he said.

“Gen. Goodman’s guidance came because the Joint Strike Fighter was coming here,” Johnston said. “Did I give that to the press and use that to let people know exactly what we were doing here? Absolutely. Did Gen. Goodman put the guidance out simply to counter the airport authority? No. That guidance was already coming out.”

The plan Goodman’s request calls for is not final, pending a review of environmental impacts required by a federal law known as the National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA. The e-mail string shows that the Marines knew they needed to be careful about their August statement’s strength because of that law. Said Shannon Shy, one official quoted in the string: “It walks right up to the line … but I believe should be okay.” When the stronger announcement was made, base officials were careful to note that the decision was not final, pending that environmental review.

Cory Briggs, a San Diego-based environmental law attorney, said if the military has definitively concluded the Joint Strike Fighter is coming to Miramar, then it would have already violated the federal law.

“And if it’s still in the planning stages, the environmental impact statement may show better places for the jet to be based,” Briggs said. “If the military is even at the planning stage, it must be going through the NEPA process at some level. If it’s not … then the military is playing politics as much as the advocates of joint use.”

The Marines moved to Miramar in 1997, after the Pentagon closed California air stations at Tustin and El Toro. Marine Corps officials have repeatedly said those base closures – which consolidated into Miramar – reaffirmed Miramar’s importance as part of an interconnected range of Southern California bases.

Airport proponents, meanwhile, point to past changes at the base as evidence that plans can change quickly. They often cite the Navy’s one-time insistence that the Top Gun fighter pilot training program had to be at Miramar. That program moved to Fallon, Nevada in 1996.

Those who want to move Lindbergh Field to Miramar question whether the Marines have altered their long-term plans to make Miramar look like a more strategic asset than it actually is.

“They needed to come up with some way to say we’re not going to discuss it – because discussing it just leaves it open,” Lynch said. The e-mail string “confirms what my intuition has told me: They will take any position to get to (say) ‘We don’t want a dialogue,’ and ‘What part of no don’t you understand?’”

Airport supporters have attempted to cast doubt on the long-term chances that the Joint Strike Fighter will come to Miramar, questioning its environmental impacts. But the plane may have a positive air-quality impact.

Rob Reider, spokesman for the San Diego Air Pollution Control District, said preliminary reports say the new plane’s emissions will actually be less polluting than the current fighter, the F-18.

The new Joint Strike Fighter has higher emissions of one air pollutant (oxides of nitrogen), which is offset by lower emissions of two other pollutants (carbon monoxide and volatile organic compounds), Reider said.

“There’s a net benefit,” he said. “Our preliminary indications are that it would conform to our air quality plan.”

Financial and timing questions do linger with the new fighter. The Pentagon is not certain when it will begin producing the Joint Strike Fighter, said John Pike, executive director of GlobalSecurity.org, a Virginia-based website that follows the defense industry. The Navy’s 2011-2012 budget shows both the F-18 and F-35 in production, Pike said, which would triple the Navy’s aircraft budget. He called that “financially absurd.”

“I’m not aware of any big plan to sort of comprehensively move things around coincident with the F-35 (Joint Strike Fighter) coming in,” Pike said. “But the default assumption would be that they’re going to put them wherever they are now.”

Please contact Rob Davis directly with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or send a letter to the editor.

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