‘Conservative’ price is $765 million to create pilot training center at Fort Smith

by Michael Tilley ([email protected]) 1,598 views 

$765 million. That is the “conservative” cost to turn Ebbing Air National Guard Base at Fort Smith into a foreign military pilot training center. That’s a lot of money to spend and a lot of work ahead to prep a one-of-a-kind facility scheduled to open in late 2024.

Ebbing, home to the 188th Wing in Fort Smith and co-located with the Fort Smith Regional Airport, was selected by the U.S. Air Force to be the long-term pilot training center supporting F-16 and F-35 fighter planes purchased by Singapore, Switzerland, Poland, Germany and other countries participating in the Foreign Military Sales (FMS) program.

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 new training center will bring about 900 military members and their families to the Fort Smith region. The 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.

The cost estimate was disclosed during a mid-April interview with Tim Allen, president and CEO of the Fort Smith Regional Chamber of Commerce, and Col. Rob Ator, USAF (Ret.), the Arkansas Economic Development Commission director of Military Affairs.

“The latest estimate, and they think this is a conservative estimate, is about $765 million to set up Ebbing to accept the mission,” Ator said during the interview with Talk Business & Politics.

That tally to be paid by the federal government does not include the $22 million – $17 million from the state of Arkansas and $5 million from the city of Fort Smith – to extend the Fort Smith Regional Airport main runway. That project is nearing completion.

Ator said a pricey part of the cost to create the facility is construction of “special access program facilities.” Such facilities are “super classified spaces” that include flight simulators and other special training equipment.

According to Allen and Ator, Ebbing initially made the shortlist for the new center primarily because it already had the infrastructure for a manned mission that ended in 2014. That would save money, which met an Air Force requirement to “limit exposure for expense,” Ator said.

“That made us very, very attractive. … We had move-in-ready facilities,” Ator said.

Ebbing had a manned aircraft mission between 1953 and June 2014. In 1988 the F-16A Fighting Falcon replaced the F-4C, and in 2000 the F-16s were upgraded to the F-16 A variant. 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. It was announced in 2012 that the A-10 Thunderbolt fighters of the 188th would be lost, and the unit’s mission would change to an intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) mission. The final A-10 departed Ebbing in June 2014.

Much of the infrastructure to support the F-16 and the A-10 remains at Ebbing.

“The Department of the Air Force conducted an enterprise-wide search for locations that would meet specified requirements for bedding down a proposed foreign military sales training center. The DAF selected Ebbing ANG Base because the base previously accommodated F-16 aircraft and can accommodate the Proposed Action with minimal renovation, new construction, and displacement of current mission(s) to meet critical F-16 and F-35 timing,” according to a statement provided to Talk Business & Politics from the U.S. Air Force Air Education and Training Command in San Antonio.

Lt. Col. Drew “Gus” Nash has been selected to “execute basing action processes” required to make the new pilot training center operational. Nash, who flew F-16s and A-10s with the 188th, is now attached to the 33rd Fighter Wing out of Eglin Air Force Base, located northeast of Fort Walton Beach, Fla.

In a March 15 interview, Nash said the earliest planes and pilots from foreign nations could arrive at Ebbing would be in late 2024, part of the military’s fiscal year 2025 beginning in September 2024. Nash said the full complement of 12 F-16s and 24 F-35s from various nations could arrive in fiscal year 2026 at the earliest. The Air Force declined to make Nash available for this story.

Allen and Ator said there would be a period in which temporary training – such as simulator and academic time – will take place in Eglin, with flight training in Fort Smith. Temporary facilities may be part of the first phase of work at Ebbing, with those phased out as permanent structures are built.

The 188th Wing is an active unit at Ebbing. The unit’s three primary missions are Remotely Piloted Aircraft (MQ-9 Reaper); Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR); and Targeting (Space-Focused). According to the Air Guard, the unit has about 1,000 employees and an annual impact of $40 million on the local economy.