The U.S. Air Force has finalized the selection of Ebbing Air National Guard Base in Fort Smith as the site for the Foreign Military Sales Program (FMS) Pilot Training Center, hosting F-16 and F-35 training for pilots.
The announcement, in the works since 2021, makes official a new mission for the base that will bring about 900 military members and their families to the Fort Smith region. The Air Force expects to move about 230 personnel to the base, and the Republic of Singapore will have 300 military personnel with 300 dependent families in the region, local officials said.
In a joint statement, Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders, U.S. Senators John Boozman and Tom Cotton and U.S. Rep. Steve Womack applauded the Air Force's decision.
"Today's Record of Decision makes clear and cements Arkansas' important role in training, equipping, and supplying our friends across the globe," the governor said. "This also means bringing jobs and economic prosperity to the state. I look forward to welcoming the new U.S. Air Force personnel who will be moving to our state and am excited for all our international partners to discover the meaning of Arkansas hospitality.
"The Arkansas Congressional Delegation and the Fort Smith community were instrumental in securing this major new mission for Ebbing Air National Guard Base — they have my deepest gratitude for their hard work."
The Air Force signed the decision on March 10, according to the Fort Smith Regional Chamber of Commerce. It had selected Ebbing as its top choice to train foreign pilots in the F-35 Lightning II fighter jet in June 2021, but couldn't finalize the decision until after a public comment phase and conducting an environmental impact study.
The decision makes Ebbing the new location for the 425th Fighter Squadron, a Republic of Singapore F-16 Fighting Falcon training unit currently based at Luke Air Force Base in Arizona.
The U.S. 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.
"Think of this as driver's ed for an F-35," Col. Jeremiah Gentry, the commander of the 188th Fighter Wing of the Arkansas Air National Guard at Ebbing, told Arkansas Business last year. "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."
Local economic development leaders called receiving the designation a testament to the area's quality of place, workforce and business climate.
"This is a long-range investment that will position our region on the forefront of global national security for decades to come," Tim Allen, president and CEO of the Fort Smith Regional Chamber of Commerce, said in a news release.
In an interview in September, Fort Smith City Administrator Carl Geffken said the new mission could provide as much as $1 billion in economic activity.
The program should also prove to be a boon to Ebbing, which stands to get a multimillion-dollar makeover now the base has been officially awarded the mission. Gentry said last year that the base will get a new complex to house fighter jet simulators, among other infrastructure improvements.
"We are extremely pleased to have the Air Force choose Fort Smith as the location for this mission," Mayor George McGill said. "We are ready and willing to welcome these military members and their families to our community and show them the true meaning of Fort Smith hospitality."
Boozman called the announcement a "gamechanger" for Fort Smith.
"The Arkansas Congressional Delegation has worked tirelessly along with state and community leaders to demonstrate to the Air Force what we all knew — Fort Smith is the best location for this mission," he said.