Gov. Sanders: New Air Force mission in Fort Smith will have ‘generational impact’

by Michael Tilley ([email protected]) 1,254 views 

(from left) U.S. Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark., Gov. Sarah Sanders, U.S. Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., and U.S. Rep. Steve Womack, R-Rogers, participate in a press conference Friday (May 5) at Ebbing Air National Guard base in Fort Smith.

The plaudits were frequent and magnanimous Friday (May 5) as political and business leaders met at the Ebbing Air National Guard base in Fort Smith to ceremonially mark the U.S. Air Force’s decision to locate a foreign military pilot training center on the base.

Ebbing, home to the 188th Wing in Fort Smith and co-located with the Fort Smith Regional Airport, was selected in March 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. Ebbing was selected over the Selfridge Air National Guard base north of Detroit.

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.”

Gov. Sarah Sanders praised the “unbelievable leadership” that engaged in a “mountain of work” to bring the training operation to Fort Smith. She said in her remarks at the early afternoon ceremony coordinated by the Fort Smith Regional Chamber of Commerce that the new mission will have a “generational impact” on Fort Smith and the state.

Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., said that with around 1,500 military personnel and family members expected to be part of the new mission, “some of the great aviators of tomorrow” will call Fort Smith home.

“And who knows, maybe we’ll even turn them into Razorback fans,” Cotton joked.

U.S. Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark., told a story about two high-ranking Singapore pilots being impressed with Fort Smith during their visit. The two pilots were in a Fort Smith coffee shop when strangers asked them about when they were coming, and the strangers also said they looked forward to when the Singapore jets begin flying above the city. The pilots said those people also bought their coffee.

(from left) U.S. Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark., Gov. Sarah Sanders, U.S. Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., visit Friday (May 5) while waiting for a Fort Smith Regional Airport flyby of two U.S. Air Force F-16 fighters based in Tulsa.

“Those are the little things that are so so meaningful and just illustrate the special place we have here in Arkansas,” Boozman said.

Continuing, Boozman said, “In my recent conversations with Singaporean officials, we were actually in Singapore, and they highlighted how nice the people of Fort Smith are and how excited they are about living here and raising their families. We were fortunate. They visited Michigan in the winter.”

The political leaders also stressed that more work is ahead to get the new mission funded and ready to begin the training. One estimate is that $765 million will be needed by the time the center is fully operational.

Also, Air Force officials have 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. The full complement of 12 F-16s and 24 F-35s from various nations could arrive in fiscal year 2026 at the earliest.

“I am anxious for us to finish the work ahead to get this sound of freedom once again booming throughout the Arkansas River valley,” Womack said.

Boozman said the new center might also prove popular as a training center for other Air Force units.

“We will be making sure the Air Force is executing what it needs so that this mission is ready to hit the ground running, and I will continue to encourage our allies and partners to join the effort. I am confident that by the time we have enhanced the capabilities here that support this new mission, Ebbing air base will be envied among other states, and more Air Force units will be clamoring to train here,” Boozman said.

Col. Rob Ator, USAF (Ret.), the Arkansas Economic Development Commission director of Military Affairs, said now is “not the time to spike the football” because federal, state and local officials have “a mountain to climb to be able to accept aircraft.”