A decision on where in the United States to locate a pilot training center for the military’s Foreign Military Sales program has been indefinitely delayed because of the U.S. presidential transition. Fort Smith is one of five locations on the short list for the training center.
It was announced July 20, 2020, 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. Then 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.”
Thanks to COVID-19, Air Force officials conducted virtual site surveys of the fie locations. Following the surveys, a grading scale, survey results and other factors were to be provided to the Secretary of the Air Force, with a decision initially expected in late 2020 or early 2021. The initial schedule also would see the chosen air base receiving the Singapore F-16s in 2023, and the F-35s in 2024.
“The change in administration has delayed the decision. Just as I did with former Secretary Barrett and President Trump, I will continue advocating for the River Valley as new leadership takes over the vetting process,” U.S. Rep. Steve Womack, R-Rogers, said in a note to Talk Business & Politics. “I still resolutely believe Fort Smith is best suited among the locations under consideration to take on this critical defense mission. Our capabilities, airspace infrastructure, community, and quality of life make a great case – and I’m hopeful the Air Force will recognize these strengths.”
Col. Jeremiah Gentry, 188th Wing Vice Commander, noted in a Feb. 6 memo that ongoing requests for more information from Air Force officials in Washington, D.C., “leads me to believe that the staffing action has not made it to the Secretary of the Air Force’s desk yet.”
Gentry said the 188th worked with Federal Aviation Administration officials in Memphis – the site that manages air traffic in the Fort Smith area – to show that the Hog and Shirley Military operation areas (MOAs) in Arkansas have supersonic capability and military aircraft can operate in those areas up to 50,000 feet. The Hog MOA is in and around the Fort Smith area, and the Shirley MOA stretches across much of north central Arkansas.
“Memphis center has been outstanding to work with and we are extremely grateful. This is as far as we can go with our airspace until we get the mission here. My personal guess is I expect to hear something in Spring 2021,” Gentry said in his Feb. 6 note.