Fort Smith selected for military pilot training center; estimated $1 billion economic impact

by Michael Tilley ([email protected]) 14,862 views 

An F-16 flown by the Singapore Air Force.

Ebbing Air National Guard Base in Fort Smith has been selected by acting Secretary of the Air Force John Roth to be the 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.

In addition to Ebbing, which is home to the 188th Wing, the finalist sites for the center were Hulman Field (Indiana), Buckley Air Force Base (Colorado), Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland (Texas) and Selfridge Air National Guard Base (Michigan).

Officials announced the selection process on July 20, 2020. The Defense Security Cooperation Agency, the federal agency managing the FMS, notes that the program provides “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.”

Air Force officials conducted virtual site surveys of the five 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 airbase receiving the Singapore F-16s in 2023 and the F-35s in 2024.

The pilot training center could have a $1 billion economic impact to the Fort Smith metro, according to the Fort Smith Regional Chamber of Commerce. The chamber reports that 345 U.S. military personnel would be part of the center and an estimated 180-plus members of the Singapore unit and around 300 dependents. Training and aircraft from Finland and Poland may also be part of the FMS site in the future.

“This is an absolute game-changer for Fort Smith,” Tim Allen, chamber president and CEO, said in a statement. “The selection process was extremely rigorous. The months-long, meticulous, behind-the-scenes effort between the congressional delegation, Gov. Asa Hutchinson’s office, the city and the Chamber positioned us perfectly to secure this project. Welcoming this new mission, these families, and the talented military team that will be making their new home here, will mean wave after wave of economic growth for the area for years to come.”

“This decision reiterates what I have said from the start—Fort Smith is best positioned to take on this critical defense mission. Our strategic location, coupled with the River Valley’s airspace, strong infrastructure, and capable workforce, will allow us to seamlessly support our valued allies and the next generation of air combat capabilities. I’m proud the Air Force and Singapore recognized this confluence of attributes. Fort Smith has a long history of community support of our defenders, and we look forward to welcoming this cutting-edge fighter fleet to Arkansas,” said U.S. Rep. Steve Womack, R-Rogers, who represents the district.

“This decision strengthens Arkansas’s role in our nation’s defense. I’m proud the U.S. Air Force and the Republic of Singapore recognized what we’ve known all along – Fort Smith is the ideal location for this mission. This is a win for the community and the entire state that was made possible in part thanks to the dedicated citizens who have tirelessly advocated the opportunities that exist here,” said U.S. Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark., who is a Fort Smith native.

It will not be the first time F-16s will fly out of Ebbing. In 1988 the F-16A Fighting Falcon replaced the F-4C used by the 188th Fighter Wing at Ebbing. A last-minute decision by the Base Realignment and Closure Committee in 2005 replaced the F-16 with the A-10. On April 14, 2007, the 188th received its first A-10. Broad cuts in U.S. defense spending included the removal of 20 A-10 Thunderbolt fighter planes from the 188th by June 2014. The 188th’s new mission changed to an intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) mission.

Former Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James told Talk Business & Politics in early April the FMS decision would likely be based on objective military factors rather than politics.

“In my view, politics can’t play any role in these decisions, because the minute you do allow political considerations to enter into it, what otherwise would and should be a fair process based on military judgment, based on facilities, based on certain people issues,” violates the criteria announced in advance to all those competing for the selection, James said.

Col. Jeremiah Gentry, vice wing commander of the 188th Wing, said in August 2020 that the 188th 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.”