The skies above Fort Smith and the River Valley are set to become the training ground for a new influx of fighter jets and foreign pilots.
In June 2021, the U.S. Air Force selected Ebbing Air National Guard Base in Fort Smith as its top choice to train foreign pilots in the F-35 Lightning II fighter jet. Ebbing would also become the home of a F-16 Fighting Falcon unit for the Republic of Singapore that is currently located in Arizona.
The decision won’t be finalized until after an environmental impact study and public comment phase, but officials at Ebbing expect the project to pass muster. If the go-ahead is announced, as expected in early spring of 2023, the first pilots and their F-35s are scheduled to arrive at the base in 2024.
The program’s arrival would greatly benefit the city of Fort Smith. City Administrator Carl Geffken said as many as 1,000 people may move to the area to participate or support the new mission, providing as much as $1 billion in economic activity.
The United States’ Foreign Military Sales program allows foreign countries to purchase F-35 jets manufactured by Lockheed Martin and then be trained at a U.S. base, in this case Ebbing. The participating countries are considered trusted and vetted partners of the United States: countries such as Poland, Germany and Singapore.
The FMS program allots as many as 24 F-35s to Ebbing at any single time for training. Poland is expected to be the first country to receive training after agreeing in 2019 to purchase 32 F-35s for more than $6 billion.
“The Department of Defense supply vetted international partners with military capability,” said Col. Jeremiah Gentry, the commander of the 188th Fighter Wing of the Arkansas Air National Guard at Ebbing. “When we sell them to them they don’t immediately know how to fly it. So we train them how to fly it.
“Think of this as driver’s ed for an F-35. Our pilots are the ones flying and teaching them how to fly the equipment that they procured before they take it back to their home country.”
Fixing Up the Place
The program should prove to be a boon to Ebbing, which will get a multimillion-dollar makeover once the base is officially awarded the mission.
Ebbing has had high-profile missions in the past, such as serving as the base for the A-10, so it has the capabilities and history to run such missions. Many of the base’s buildings are standing and functional but will need to be remodeled to suit the FMS program.
Gentry said Ebbing was an attractive candidate for many reasons — available airspace, community support — and its base infrastructure was a bonus. While not all the facilities may be up to standards, it is easier and cheaper for the Air Force to spruce up a building than build a new one.
The Air Force will also build a complex to house fighter jet simulators. The FMS program is at least a 10-year commitment, but with so many countries wanting to buy F-35s, it is possible that the program will last longer.
“Like a dealership you don’t know how many customers are cycling through,” Gentry said. “Currently, it is capped at 24 F-35s at any given time cycling through the training center for 10 years. There is no defined end.”
Gentry said Ebbing has 300 personnel on base daily and that number balloons to about 1,000 during training weekends. The FMS program would add nearly 400 more people to the daily life of the base, from foreign pilots and crew to base support staff.
“The 12 F-16s are staying permanently and flying here side by side with the pilot training center for F-35s,” Gentry said. “Two things concurrently happening while the Wing still does what the Wing does. We are going to stay a 1,000-person Wing, and, oh, by the way, we’re going to oversee and help facilitate the Air Force pilot training center at Ebbing.”
Geffken said Fort Smith is already preparing for the new arrivals, although he stressed repeatedly that the final decision hasn’t been made.
“If the determination is to locate the new mission at the 188th, over 1,000 new residents will move into Fort Smith and the River Valley region,” Geffken said in an email to Arkansas Business. “Our homebuilders are working to increase the housing supply, our schools are ready for the new students, and our community is ready to welcome them. “The overall impact to Fort Smith will be transformative and we welcome the FMS project with open arms.”
Gentry said that Ebbing will be primed to handle as many as three countries and 24 planes at any given time. He wryly said that the base’s current capabilities are zero, because no money can be invested until Secretary of the Air Force Frank Kendall gives final approval.
Russian Aggression Cited
Gentry said he is not privy to the high-level discussions between leaders of governments that result in deals for F-35s, conversations that determine how many a country wants to buy and how much it is willing to pay.
What he does know is that the Russian invasion of Ukraine earlier this year — after its annexation of Crimea in 2014 — has sparked interest from European countries in the F-35. After Poland, Germany is expected to be the next country training at Ebbing.
“The Russian aggression has caused increased F-35 sales and that means we expect a long-term cycle,” Gentry said. “The schedule currently goes out beyond 2030 but will likely continue as new countries sign with our Department of Defense monthly or yearly.
“What we do know is [countries] came and visited and loved it here. They can’t wait to come here. Now they’re just trying to throw as much money as they can to get here as fast as possible and get trained.”
Ebbing already has some high-level security with visitors and their vehicles thoroughly searched before entry. But those measures are nothing compared to the security required when top-of-the-line fighter jets are housed on site.
Gentry said security and infrastructure upgrades are top priorities. The FMS program will be run with military precision; pilots will begin simulator and book training on the F-35 before manufacture is complete so the pilots are ready for the cockpit as soon as the planes roll off the assembly line and roll onto the Ebbing runway.
“We need to be ready to receive it, and as soon as we receive it and it is operational, the demand signal is there; it is going straight into the training pipeline,” Gentry said. “I foresee it being a very tightly managed timeline that is scrutinized heavily. If you don’t deliver on time to a country on the eastern flank of an aggressive country, they are probably going to call our president.”