Final decision places foreign pilot training center in Fort Smith

by Michael Tilley ([email protected]) 2,940 views 

It’s official. Fort Smith will be home to a foreign military pilot training center, initially bringing more than 500 military personnel and an estimated 300 “dependent families” to the city during the next two years.

It was announced Wednesday (March 15) that U.S. Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall has signed the final “record of decision” to place the unique operation at Ebbing Air National Guard Base located adjacent to the Fort Smith Regional Airport.

Ebbing, which is home to the 188th Wing in Fort Smith, was selected on June 8, 2021, by then-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. The Air Force also selected Selfridge Air National Guard Base in Selfridge, Mich., 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.”

According to the Fort Smith Regional Chamber of Commerce, the final decision was signed on March 10, clearing the way for Ebbing to be the next home for the 425th Fighter Squadron, a Republic of Singapore F-16 Fighting Falcon training unit now based at Luke Air Force Base in Arizona.

“This community has a long history of supporting the military and we can now add this prestigious mission to that list,” said Tim Allen, president and CEO of the Fort Smith Regional Chamber of Commerce. “To have the U.S. Air Force identify and choose Fort Smith as the home to this program is the strongest possible testament to the quality of place, workforce, business climate and resources that we have available. This is a long-range investment that will position our region on the forefront of global national security for decades to come.”

This new training center will bring about 900 military members and their families to the Fort Smith region, the chamber noted. The U.S. Air Force anticipates moving approximately 230 personnel to the base, and the Republic of Singapore will have 300 military personnel with 300 dependent families in the region.

“We’re extremely pleased to have the Air Force choose Fort Smith as the location for this mission,” said Fort Smith Mayor George McGill. “We are ready and willing to welcome these military members and their families to our community and show them the true meaning of Fort Smith hospitality.”

In March 2022, Col. Rob Ator, USAF (Ret.), and then the Arkansas Economic Development Commission director of Military Affairs, estimated the center would be home to 345 U.S. military personnel and bring to Ebbing an estimated 180-plus members of the Singapore unit and around 300 dependents – 825 total. He said analysis suggests that for every 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.

Ator also said at the time that the foreign pilot training center could be an “enduring mission” lasting 30 years or more.

“The addition of hosting the … Singapore Air Force and the F-35 Foreign Military Sales Pilot Training Center only furthers that history and emphatically places Arkansas on the international stage for strategic deterrence, using the world’s most technologically advanced aircraft,” Ator said Wednesday in a statement. “This basing action is an example of the local community, the State of Arkansas, and the United States Air Force working together for our shared future and the stability of the globe at a time of great strategic competition.”

Work began in early 2022 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 with the state, which committed the other $17 million for the project.