Study Eyes Selfridge Air National Guard Base for Military Testing of Materials at Extreme Speeds, Environments

A-10 Warthogs at Selfridge Air Force base
The A-10 Warthogs at Selfridge Air Force base in Harrison Township are expected to be retired in two years. Elected officials and others in Michigan are trying to secure the future of Selfridge with a new mission. (Daniel Mears, The Detroit News, TNS)

A new study is underway examining whether Selfridge Air National Guard Base or a site nearby would be suitable for a facility for hypersonics and extreme environment testing, officials said.

The study is being conducted over the next 18 months by LIFT, the Detroit-based high-tech manufacturing research institute in Corktown with $1.5 million from the 2023 Department of Defense and a matching $1.5 million from the Michigan Economic Development Corp.

Hypersonics vehicles, which travel faster than the speed of sound at Mach 5 or higher, are of great interest to U.S. defense planners, though research and testing of materials to ensure they can withstand such speeds is critical to advancing hypersonic technology.

"We've been working on hypersonics materials development for last couple of years, and as we have worked on those materials, we could not find places where we could test these materials that wasn't backed out two to four years, except for taking them down to Florida," said Joe Steele, LIFT's vice president for government affairs.

"As our stakeholders, our government officials and other folks are talking about the future of Selfridge, we thought that, hey, this would be a great addition to southeast Michigan and the Michigan defense sector ― to be able to bring such cutting-edge technology and things that we're already working on here in Corktown and to establish something like that at Selfridge."

The study comes as elected officials and others in Michigan are trying to secure the future of Selfridge as it faces the retirement of its A-10 fighter mission in two years and its KC-135 Stratotanker refuelers after that.

In January, the Air Force announced its decision to base a squadron of 12 KC-46A Pegasus refueling tankers at the base in Harrison Township, though that would still mean some job losses and a potentially smaller footprint for the base.

Members of Michigan's congressional delegation have proposed hypersonics testing among the new missions that could come to Selfridge, with Republican U.S. Rep. John James of Shelby Township, whose district includes the base, securing $7.5 million for a hypersonics testing facility in the House defense spending package last year.

LIFT currently has the capability at the facility it uses at the University of Central Florida to test 2-by-2-inch pieces of material in the shape of wedges to measure how it's withstanding the stresses of high speeds and temperatures and speed when moving between across a distance, Steele said. Researchers there would like to test larger pieces of material — 9-by-9 inch pieces ― to get a better sense the material's capability.

"So we're talking Mach 5, Mach 6, Mach 7 type of wind speed going over these pieces of material to better understand that the recipe that we have for the material is the right one to be deployed going forward by industry to make these these vehicles," Steele said.

One day, the material could be incorporated into a hypersonics missle system or vehicle, which is why it needs to be able to withstand that kind of strain, he said. Currently, LIFT is testing metallics, though researchers there want to explore ceramics in the future.

"In the future, this facility wouldn't have to be hypersonics but anything that is a an extreme environment, where you need to test it under such such stresses and strains," Steele said.

The study underway includes scoping out what's needed in terms of space, equipment, testing standards and personnel to set up a "ready to go" package for contractors and other users, he said. Putting it at Selfridge is key in that it's already a security facility, where maybe officials could retrofit an existing building, for example.

Those who would use the facility include military industry leaders such as Lockheed Martin or Raytheon that LIFT is already working with on hypersonics materials development. LIFT expects to continue the program with additional funding from in the Pentagon budget adopted earlier this year.

"I was proud to secure the federal funds needed to get this project underway, particularly given Selfridge is already home to numerous advanced capabilities and national security components," said Sen. Gary Peters, D- Bloomfield Township, who sits on the appropriations committee.

"LIFT is an invaluable asset to Michigan’s defense manufacturing sector, and I’ll keep doing everything I can to support their great work.”

Peters said he's also working on language for the upcoming defense appropriations bill related to next-generation crewless or unmanned "collaborative" aircraft (CCA) that the Air Force is acquiring. Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall in April mentioned the CCA as a possibility for Selfridge, though officials don't know yet the final number of aircraft that will be purchased, he said at the time.

Peters said in his discussions with the Air Force and others he has focused on how the KC-46A tankers could be employed as a "command and control" node for the CCAs, flying along with them. The KC-46As are projected to start arriving at Selfridge in 2029.

"I want to make sure that Selfridge is positioned to be a base for those CCAs, and the fact that we have the KC-46 actually allows us to build off of that platform to bring CCAs into the Air National Guard into Michigan," Peters told The Detroit News. "The Air Force wants to get these up and going by 2030, at least a large number of them by 2030."

Peters and others in the delegation said they're not giving up on their push to secure a follow-on fighter mission for Selfridge like the F-15EX.

U.S. Rep. Elissa Slotkin, D- Holly, who sits on the House Armed Services Committee, last month got a provision into the annual defense policy bill that adds the procurement of 24 additional F-15EX aircraft that lawmakers hope would be sent to Selfridge once built, though that decision would be up to the Air Force.

Also in committee, she introduced an amendment with Rep. Don Bacon, R- Nebraska, that would have prohibited the retirement of Air National Guard fighter aircraft like Selfridge's A-10s until replacement aircraft are identified. The measure failed on voice vote at last month's markup.

Slotkin in an interview noted that she'd take any fighter mission, not just the F-15EX but also the F-35 or F-16. But Kendall has told her and others that there's no open competition at the moment for Michigan to seek those fighters.

"He's used to the Michigan delegation at this point hounding him. What the Air Force says is Michigan is in the running, we just don't have an open competition right now for a placement, like another round of F-35 placements, and so as soon as another competition happens, Michigan is well-placed. But we want to change that to certainty," Slotkin said.

"We want to maintain that skill set in Michigan and coming out of Selfridge. We have some of the most experienced pilots in the country in our Air National Guard. We think it's crazy to just give up on that depth of experience here. Obviously, it's critical for the base."

James last week sent a letter to Army Secretary Christine Wormuth advocating for Selfridge to get an AH-64E Apache helicopter mission. James, a pilot, flew AH-64s in Iraq. He said he's still continuing his efforts to bring a new fighter mission to Selfridge, though he argued that sending the helicopters to the base would "both serve our local economy and national security.”

"I won’t stop working to bring additional missions to Selfridge for fiscal year 2025," James said in a statement. "When it comes to Selfridge, we’re all one team — and we’re all working for one mission: getting Selfridge the increased capacity and new fighter mission that it deserves.”

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