$75.5 million in legislation for foreign pilot training center in Fort Smith

by Michael Tilley ([email protected]) 1,043 views 

The expensive effort to create a foreign military pilot training center in Fort Smith may have $75.5 million – if not more – in the next federal fiscal year to begin preparing for a full complement of fighter planes estimated to arrive in late 2025 or early 2026.

U.S. Rep. Steve Womack, R-Rogers, announced Tuesday (June 13) that legislation approved Tuesday by the U.S. House Appropriations Committee includes $75.5 million “for three Ebbing Air National Guard Base projects” associated with the planned pilot training center. The funding will be available through Sept. 30, 2024, according to the legislation.

It has been estimated that the full cost to create an operational foreign pilot training center will range between $700 million and $800 million.

Ebbing Air National Guard Base, 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, Finland and other countries participating in the Foreign Military Sales (FMS) program. Initial estimates are that 1,500 military personnel and family members will be associated with the new center once it is fully operational.

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.”

U.S. 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.

“Arkansas’ Third (Congressional District) has a long history of supporting our defenders, and this year’s Military Construction and Veterans Affairs bill continues this legacy,” Rep. Womack, who is a member of the House Appropriations Committee, noted in a statement. “It secures critical funding for Ebbing Air National Guard Base construction in support of the critical FMS mission that will soon bring the sound of freedom to Fort Smith.”

Womack’s office said he and U.S. Sens. John Boozman, R-Ark., and Tom Cotton, R-Ark., are “working with the Air Force and the House and Senate Appropriations committees to make sure the project at Ebbing is fully resourced.”

Planned legislation on the U.S. Senate side could set aside $83 million for the training center, according to the office of U.S. Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark. Boozman is the lead Republican on the Senate Appropriations Military Construction, Veterans Affairs, and Related Agencies Subcommittee.

“The difference in the amount from what was passed in the House bill, $75.5 million, and what we anticipate will pass in the Senate bill is the result of a late request communicated to Senator Boozman’s office that came from the Air Force for planning and design. The Senate subcommittee will take up its bill in the coming weeks,” noted a statement from Boozman’s office.

Boozman’s office also presented an earlier timeline for the arrival of fighter jets in Fort Smith, noting that Sen. Boozman expects “F-35s flying over the region in the summer of 2024.”

“The Air Force has a plan to sequence construction of different facilities that line up with when the different countries will arrive for training. The Air Force is still working with other countries and industry partners to determine how much money will be needed next year and in the future. Senator Boozman will be leading efforts from the subcommittee and working with other members of the delegation and the Air Force to provide the necessary funding,” according to a statement from Boozman’s office.