U.S. Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark., said the inability of Congress to agree on a federal budget could delay some funds for the foreign pilot training center in Fort Smith, but said the center is secure even if funding problems emerge.
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.
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. It has been estimated that the full cost to create an operational foreign pilot training center will range between $700 million and $800 million.
Boozman was able to secure $28 million for center design and planning, and $187 million has been approved – although not all is yet available – for fiscal year 2024 center funding. Ensuring no delays in funding – especially with the U.S. House not having a Speaker – will be a challenge, Boozman admitted.
“It’s very important in the sense that we don’t want the timeline slipping. … Because we’ve got pretty tight timelines, and if we don’t have the money, we can’t go forward,” he said in an interview with Talk Business & Politics after speaking Thursday (Oct. 12) at the Fort Smith Regional Chamber of Commerce banquet. “I’m confident we’ll get this (federal budget) done in the next few months.”
In his comments to the almost 800 people at the chamber banquet, Boozman praised business and civic leaders for what they did to work with state officials in convincing Singapore officials and the U.S. Air Force to bring the center to Fort Smith. Boozman said the city was not initially a front-runner for the new base.
“That was a David-and-Goliath deal. Kind of like the U.S. Marshals Museum,” he said, referring to the city’s ability in 2007 to convince federal officials to bring the museum – now open – to Fort Smith.
Boozman also announced that a German delegation is set to visit Fort Smith and Ebbing next week.
He also said the recent upgrade of Fort Chaffee has an added benefit in terms of keeping military facilities in the region. The Arkansas National Guard on Sept. 27 announced that the Fort Chaffee Joint Maneuver Training Command is just one of five among more than 150 National Guard training bases in the nation to be rated Level 1 by the U.S. Department of Defense. The 65,000-acre base east of Fort Smith was “identified as a Multi Force Generation Installation-Contingency.” The upgrade from a Level 2 training site is based on maneuver land capacity and range live fire capacity, according to the ANG.
Boozman said the Fort Chaffee upgrade combined with Ebbing’s new mission “makes it much more difficult for” the Department of Defense through the Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) process to close or reduce operations at the two locations.
Boozman also addressed the attacks on Israel. He said the “horrendous set of events” require the U.S. to stand with Israel, adding that the people of Israel did nothing to deserve the attacks. There have been some groups suggesting that Israel’s treatment of Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank must be considered when responding to the attacks by Hamas on Israel.
“There is no moral equivalence to that. None,” Boozman said emphatically.
In the interview after the banquet, Boozman said actions by Iran may determine if the U.S. is drawn into a wider conflict in the region.
“I think the wild card is Iran and what they do,” he said. “Right now, the whole world is seeing the price that is being paid for what they did to Israel. I do think the President (Biden) moving significant military assets to that part of the world is a good show of force, and I think everyone understands that we’re committed to the nation of Israel.”