Dave Malek performs a safety check on a UAV before it takes off for one of the Air Force Research Labratory’s test flights at Springfield Beckley Municipal Airport. Bill Lackey/Staff

Defense bill to benefit Springfield airport, drone research

An amendment included in a recent $700 billion defense authorization bill is expected to encourage more cooperation between the military and Federal Aviation Administration, including for work at the Springfield-Beckley Municipal Airport.

The House bill passed this week will add more planes, ships and troops at a time Pentagon leaders say the military has strained under spending caps and high operational tempo. The legislation included an amendment offered by U.S. Rep. Warren Davidson, R-Troy, to encourage collaboration on commercial drone development between the FAA and Department of Defense.

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That amendment is expected to affect the Springfield-Beckley Municipal Airport, where the Air Force Research Laboratories and state of Ohio are collaborating on a project to allow businesses and researchers to test drones beyond the line of sight.

“The goal is it will increase the activity there,” said Davidson, whose district includes Springfield. “This should benefit our installations in the region. It will help advance technology, which is something the Dayton and Springfield region has a great history of.”

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The Defense policy bill authorizes the purchase of aircraft, sets the numbers of personnel that can be hired by the defense department and changes laws that govern the operation of national defense, said Michael Gessel, Dayton Development Coalition vice president of federal programs.

U.S. Sens. Rob Portman and Sherrod Brown offered a Senate amendment that’s similar to the one put in by Davidson.

“Support for Wright-Patt’s Air Force Research Lab ensures the lab can continue and expand the critical research they provide for our military and the Department of Defense,” Brown said in a statement. “Senator Portman and I will continue our efforts to support the research lab and highly skilled men and women who work there.”

The legislation is required annually, Gessel said.

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“This provision aims at ensuring a closer working relationship between the FAA and the Department of Defense on unmanned aircraft systems research,” Gessel said. “The aim is that the provision will assist the AFRL, which has established operations in Springfield, but will require working with the FAA and securing FAA approval for certain operations. The theme is to smooth those requirements where AFRL will need to work with the FAA in the Springfield operation.”

There are no specific challenges in that relationship now, Gessel said. But the provision will ensure that relationship proceeds smoothly.

“The close working relationship between AFRL and the FAA is necessary in order to advance the AFRL operation,” Gessel said. “In that sense, it could lead to more work but the effort is aimed at supporting the existing operation. There’s not a sense that this will automatically lead to increased operations.”

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The bill also includes a provision to increase the number of personnel in the Air National Guard by 900 airmen, but doesn’t specify where those jobs might be located.

Even with the bill’s passage in a 356-70 vote, defense spending caps known as sequestration will remain in place until congressional lawmakers pass a follow-on appropriations bill to lift the spending restrictions. The Senate is set to vote next on the measure.

A continuing resolution that caps spending at last year’s levels expires Dec. 8, putting pressure on lawmakers to act.

“There is a general sense that when the existing (continuing resolution) expires on Dec. 8, that Congress will not be ready to approve a year-long appropriations bill,” Gessel said.

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Lawmakers face tackling a massive tax reform bill, he said, among other competing priorities.

U.S. Rep. Mike Turner, R-Dayton, a House Armed Services Committee member, urged his colleagues to support the measure.

“If we do not begin with this budget to set favorable conditions to start to reverse the high-risk defense posture we currently have, we will significantly jeopardize our military’s advantage that we’ve taken for granted in past conflicts and steady-state operations,” Turner said on the House floor.

The defense bill voted on Tuesday also authorizes $6.8 million for a fire station at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, and would make it harder to move a Department of Defense office at Wright-Patt with 25 employees whose work focuses on boosting the U.S. defense industrial base.

Under the legislation, the Air Force Institute of Technology could expand student numbers by allowing admission of homeland security industry employees, Gessel said. AFIT currently enrolls civilian students in the defense industry, in addition to military and federal government employees.

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