Pilot training center in Fort Smith will have ‘enduring mission,’ ‘huge’ economic impact

by Michael Tilley ([email protected]) 3,006 views 

An F-16 flown by the Singapore Air Force.

Documents in the Environmental Impact Statement process for the proposed U.S. Air Force pilot training center in Fort Smith say the mission will extend to 2029, but a state official believes the center will have an “enduring mission” that could last 30 years or more.

Speaking Tuesday (March 8) at the Better Communities town hall in Fort Smith, Col. Rob Ator, USAF (Ret.), and Arkansas Economic Development Commission director of Military Affairs, said the pilot training center at Ebbing National Guard Air Base in Fort Smith that is part of the federal Foreign Military Sales (FMS) program should be confirmed in April 2023.

Ebbing was selected June 8 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, the Air Force selected Selfridge Air National Guard Base in Michigan as the alternative site.

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.”

Ator told the more than 100 people at the Fort Smith town hall that with an April 2023 final decision the first 12 F-16s would arrive at Ebbing in June 2023. It is estimated the center would be home to 345 U.S. military personnel and bring to Ebbing or Selfridge an estimated 180-plus members of the Singapore unit and around 300 dependents – 825 total. He said analysis suggests that for every one direct military job added to a local economy, one other job is created.

“This is like getting a 2,000-job project. This is huge. This is like setting a Nissan (manufacturing) plant in the middle of Fort Smith. This is a very big deal,” Ator said.

Although a final decision is not expected until April 2023, work is set to begin in April on a runway extension at the Fort Smith Regional Airport to support the pilot training center. The city of Fort Smith committed $5 million toward a $22 million project to extend the runway by 1,300 additional feet. The $22 million dollar project is a collaboration between the state, which committed the other $17 million for the project.

Ator said that “barring something really really nasty in the economic impact study,” the final decision in April 2023 will still recommend Fort Smith for the center.

Arkansas Secretary of Commerce Mike Preston, who was also part of the Better Communities event, said the state put on a full effort in the pursuit of the pilot training center like it does with any large economic development project.

“We had to convince that group from Singapore that Fort Smith Arkansas, and I don’t think many people from Singapore had heard of Fort Smith Arkansas, but we had to convince them that this was the place to go. … They came in. They fell in love with the community. They fell in love with what was happening education-wise, and that’s what allowed us to ultimately win that project,” he said.

Talk Business & Politics, in partnership with First Security Bank, the Arkansas Department of Commerce and the Fort Smith Regional Chamber of Commerce, hosted the “Better Communities” town hall.