MANSFIELD -- The military presence at Mansfield Lahm Regional Airport will move ahead by a century when a new cyber warfare wing begins its new mission, officials said Thursday.
The announcement late Wednesday by the U.S. Air Force that it had selected the local base to host a new Ohio Air National Guard Information Warfare (Cyber) Wing means the end of a seven-decade local flying mission.
That mission began in 1948 with fighter planes and will end with aging C-130H transport aircraft for the 179th Airlift Wing, which are scheduled to be completely divested by Sept. 30, 2022.
But the decision helps guarantee a military future in north central Ohio, according to U.S. Rep. Troy Balderson, who has worked to help land the new mission.
"I was ecstatic to receive the phone call from Secretary of the Air Force Frank Kendall (Wednesday) congratulating us on the department's decision to name Mansfield as its preferred location for the new Cyber Warfare Wing," said Balderson, a Republican from Zanesville whose 12th District includes most of Richland County.
"The Cyber Wing will launch Mansfield and Ohio to the forefront of our nation's 21st century defense capabilities," Balderson said Thursday.
Balderson said the IWW is expected to bring 175 new jobs for airmen and associated support jobs. An environmental analysis of the base is expected to be completed this fall.
New equipment associated with the new mission is expected to arrive in the fall of 2022. Initial mission readiness is expected by 2024 and full operational capacity by 2027.
According to a 2020 Air Force magazine article, an IWW brings together experts in intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance; electronic warfare; cyber; information operations; and public affairs.
The article said such units help tackle overarching problems in the cyber realm, including U.S. election security, protecting air defenses, and rooting out malignant influences on networks.
Col. Todd Thomas, the 179th commander announced Thursday he was confident in the ability of local airmen to meet the new challenge.
"The announcement ... sets the stage for the journey towards a mission-capable cyber wing. I have high expectations for this new capability and see this as a long-term win for the wing, Mansfield, Ohio and the nation," Thomas said.
The colonel said it's important to acknowledge it will be a difficult transition for the "passionate aviation community" that helped shape the local military heritage and culture.
"Since becoming the wing commander, I have always told our airmen we must do everything in our ability to 'keep the front gate open' and flex to whatever mission allows us to be viable well into the future and aligns with the national defense strategy," Thomas said.
"I am extremely confident our airmen are capable of shifting focus from tactical air-land and air-drop operations to the cyber battlefield. I look forward to what our airmen will bring to the cyber fight," Thomas said.
The move is contingent on Congressional approval to "retire" the eight C-130 aircraft in Mansfield as part of the 2022 Defense Authorization Act. The Air Force has made clear its plan to reduce the number of C-130s in its fleet from more than 300 down to about 255.
The active-duty Air Force uses only newer "J" model aircraft.
In November 2020, the Air Force announced Mansfield was one of two national sites selected as possible locations for the new IWW with Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport in Minnesota as the other.
During a visit to Mansfield in July, Balderson said he was "optimistic" Mansfield would be the choice.
Though no final decision had been made at that time for the flying mission, the conversation had shifted in recent weeks to converting Mansfield into the new cyber unit.
"What better time to talk about cyber security than now, as (the United States) has been hit with (cyber attacks) four times in the last two months?" Balderson asked.
"The generals are on board with this and I think that is hugely important. The community is on board with this," Balderson said in July.
'We see a path (forward) there. There was some competition (with Minneapolis), but that competition has somewhat declined. I won't say it's all gone, but I am very optimistic," Balderson said then.
Also on Thursday, U.S. Rep. Mike Turner (R-Dayton), a member of the House Armed Services Committee, hailed the Air Force decision to bring the new mission to Mansfield, praising the work of Balderson, Gov. Mike DeWine and Sens. Rob Portman and Sherrod Brown.
"The reinvestment into the Mansfield base will create more jobs for Ohioans and bring the base into the 21st century while reinforcing Ohio as a leader in national security," said Turner, who visited the 179th in 2019.