188th officer says Fort Smith is ‘better positioned’ than other air bases for pilot training center

by Michael Tilley ([email protected]) 3,106 views 

An F-16 flown by the Singapore Air Force.

A play on acronyms is part of the messaging Leon Dodroe and Jeremiah Gentry hope will convince the U.S. Air Force to select Ebbing Air National Guard Base in Fort Smith as a long-term pilot training center supporting F-16 and F-35 fighter planes purchased by U.S. allies.

It was announced July 20 that Ebbing Air National Guard Base in Fort Smith is one of five Air Force finalist sites for a long-term pilot training center supporting F-16 and F-35 fighter planes purchased by Singapore, Switzerland and other countries participating in the Foreign Military Sales (FMS) program. The other finalist sites are Hulman Field, Buckley Air Force Base, Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland and Selfridge Air National Guard Base. Secretary of the Air Force Barbara Barrett signed a memo July 6 to create one U.S. site for pilot training for up to 36 F-35 fighters and an F-16 base for the Republic of Singapore. The F-16s are now located at Luke Air Force Base near Phoenix.

According to the Defense Security Cooperation Agency, the federal agency managing the FMS, the program is “responsible arms sales to further national security and foreign policy objectives by strengthening bilateral defense relations, supporting coalition building, and enhancing interoperability between U.S. forces and militaries of friends and allies. These sales also contribute to American prosperity by improving the U.S. balance of trade position, sustaining highly skilled jobs in the defense industrial base, and extending production lines and lowering unit costs for key weapon systems.”

FSM is the airport code for the Fort Smith Regional Airport, which is contiguous with Ebbing. The code is similar to the FMS program that could bring hundreds of military personnel and up to 50 fighter planes to Fort Smith. Col. Jeremiah Gentry, vice wing commander of the 188th Wing based at Ebbing, said he and Wing Commander Col. Leon Dodroe want the Air Force to see FSM when they see FMS, and vice versa.

188th Wing Commander Col. Leon Dodroe

But Dodroe and Gentry, who has been tasked to take the lead for the 188th on the effort to lobby for the FMS pilot training center, aren’t resting on clever letter play to win the day. Gentry, a Fort Smith native who graduated Southside High School in 1996, said his primary role is to ensure decision makers have all the info they need about what Fort Smith offers.

“What I’m doing is answering questions to the readiness center in ]Washington], D.C. for the Air National Guard, and I’m answering questions and collecting information for headquarters Air Force. So when they compare us against our four competitors, they have the most accurate information to make a decision,” Gentry said in an interview with Talk Business & Politics.

Gentry said Ebbing and Fort Smith have historically received “strong community support” for jet missions, the air space around the field is the largest in middle America, the ramp space is twice the size of what is needed, and the region has 320 suitable weather days for mission flying, better than the required 240. Also, Gentry said, the other bases on the pilot training center list have active duty flying missions with which the training center would have to compete for air space time. In Fort Smith, the pilot training center “would be the primary customer.”

188th Wing Vice Commander Col. Jeremiah Gentry

“I think we’re better positioned because of the long-term support that this community has, and has proven over the last 70 years. … We’re going to make a compelling argument that this can be a long-term home. You don’t have to keep butting up against active duty and getting de-prioritized and moved. You can be here long-term,” Gentry said.

Possibly the biggest selling point is Razorback Range, which is part of the Fort Chaffee Maneuver Training Center, Gentry said. The range, just 15 minutes east of Ebbing, provides immediate access for jet fighters, which saves the military money on fuel and wear and tear on the plane. Gentry said “training gets maximized when your range is so close,” and none of the other air bases under consideration have a similar nearby range.

“Razorback Range is one of the largest unrestricted airspaces that the U.S. airspace system has. The capabilities of that range, and the amount of training that they can get done is the closest of any of our competitors. There is a premiere range (nearby) where you can drop bombs before you can even pull your (landing) gear up. It’s four miles off of the end of the runway,” said Gentry, who piloted the F-16 and A-10 with the 188th when it had the manned fighter mission.

As to what new buildings and other infrastructure might be required if Ebbing is selected, Gentry isn’t sure because some of those decisions will be made post-selection. He believes there will be new construction required and renovation of spaces. He said Ebbing’s facilities – the large central hangar and sun shades on the ramp built to accommodate the F-16 and A-10, for example – used when the unit had a manned mission are still in good shape.

“It’s not plug and play, but it’s close,” Gentry said. “Not many [competitors] have these outstanding facilities that are sitting dormant but not in disrepair. Because six years was the last time an A-10 flew off this ramp. … On the whole, ours [ramp] is postured very well, because they want space for up to 50 aircraft, and we have space for more than that – 56.”

A virtual site survey will be conducted within the next two months by the Air Force and training and readiness officials based in Washington, D.C., Gentry said. COVID-19 has forced the survey of the selected air bases to be virtual instead of in person, Gentry said. After the survey is complete, a grading scale, survey results and other factors will be provided to the Secretary of the Air Force, and later this year or early in 2021 the secretary will narrow the choice down to a “preferred” base and a “reasonable” base, Gentry said.

A final decision is expected by the end of 2021, and the base chosen could begin to receive the Singapore F-16s in 2023, and the F-35s in 2024.

Gentry knows Air Force and community officials with each base selected are touting their advantages, but is convinced Ebbing and Fort Smith will make a strong showing.

“We know militarily we’re competitive,” he said. “And we know our local community supports us, and our Congressional delegation. I just hope the Air Force recognizes the valuable resources that we have that can support this initiative.”

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