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Ebbing Air National Guard Base: Multimillion-Dollar Training Center Renovation Underway

5 min read

The Ebbing Air National Guard Base in Fort Smith is getting a makeover, courtesy of the United States government.

The multimillion-dollar renovation is a necessity for the base, which opened in 1953. The remodeling and upgrades are critical so Ebbing can handle the Foreign Military Sales pilot training program that will be held at the base beginning later this year.

The U.S. Air Force selected Ebbing as the host site to train foreign pilots in F-35 Lightning II fighter jets. Ebbing was officially approved in March 2023, and Congress approved nearly $300 million in funding for the base earlier this year.

The total project cost is expected to surpass $750 million.

The 10-year FMS program allows foreign countries to purchase F-35 jets manufactured by Lockheed Martin and then get training for their pilots at a U.S. base. The base will be able to house 24 F-35s at any one time.

The men and women of the Arkansas Air National Guard’s 188th Fighter Wing are already preparing the base and have been since the announcement in 2021 that the USAF had selected Ebbing as its preferred host base.

Col. Jay Spohn

Col. Jay Spohn, the commander of the 188th, said the base’s upgrades are expected to be done in half the time normally expected to upgrade a base to handle F-35 planes.

“At a lot of bases that are bedding down the F-35, that is a five- to seven-year process,” Spohn said. “Here at Ebbing, we are doing that in about half the time. It’s going to be 3½ years from when the announcement was that the airplanes were coming here to when the first airplane should get here.”

A deadline certainly helped fuel the work, since the Air Force told Ebbing it was sending airplanes and pilots there by the fall of 2024. Spohn said political, business and community leaders rallied behind the project.

First Up: Poland

In 2019, Poland agreed to purchase 32 F-35s for more than $6 billion.

Other countries participating in the program and scheduled to train pilots at Ebbing in coming years are Finland, Germany, Singapore and Switzerland.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2022 spurred interest in the F-35. Spohn said the country’s FMS program will help strengthen its global ties with important, strategic allies.

Foreign Military Sales Schedule

Start Date


Poland Fall 2024 F-35
Finland Fall 2025 F-35
Germany Fall 2026 F-35
Singapore Fall 2026 F-35
Singapore Summer 2027 F-16
Switzerland Summer 2027 F-35
(Source: U.S. Air Force)

“In the grand scheme of things, it is important in global conflicts as we get ready to face peer-level adversaries around the globe … to have allies around the globe,” Spohn said.

“One of the biggest ways America has traditionally built and maintained allied relationships is through military hardware and training. FMS is a great example of that.

“We train them to fly that equipment the way that we fly it. That is the best way to build alliances and partners around the world militarily.”

The FMS program will be held at Ebbing but will be run by the Air Force’s 33rd Fighter Wing Detachment One. While the base’s construction upgrades are ongoing, the FMS will make due with temporary facilities

Steve Womack

“Construction is ongoing and is expected to meet the Air Force’s goal to begin training in fall of 2024 with the arrival of F-35s for Poland,” said Lt. Col. Jonathan Hassell, commander of the 33rd FW Detachment One. “Relocatable facilities are being constructed to fulfill operational requirements until permanent facilities are constructed.”

Officials have said the FMS program could have a $1 billion annual economic impact on the Fort Smith region.

The FMS program is for 10 years but could last longer depending on the demand for American-made F-35s and subsequent training.

“The Foreign Military Sales program will boost our local economy and advance Fort Smith’s role in bolstering our national security at home and abroad,” U.S. Rep. Steve Womack, R-Ark., said. “I look forward to hearing the sound of freedom soon in the River Valley!”

Remaking the Bed

While there was little doubt the FMS program, and Ebbing, would receive the needed funding from Congress, Arkansas’ contingent in Washington was active in passing appropriations bills.

Sen. John Boozman

“Transforming Ebbing Air National Guard Base into the premier pilot training center in the U.S. not only reinforces our commitments to our allies participating in the future pilot training mission in Fort Smith, it is also a game-changer for the region and our entire state,” said U.S. Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark.

“We are already beginning to see the benefits as private industry support for the new mission is generated, and the economic impact will only increase.”

Ebbing isn’t a stranger to being home to and supporting a military air unit.

For many years, Ebbing was well known as the home of the A-10, the last of which left the base in 2014. Ebbing converted to running the MQ-9 drone mission as well as the Intelligence, Surveillance & Reconnaissance program.

Spohn took over as commander at Ebbing in February but served as a tactics officer at the base from 2007 to 2009. Ebbing’s experience — and infrastructure leftovers — as an A-10 base will help in the upgrades, although the requirements for F-35s are extensive.

“There are a lot of challenges associated with standing up a manned flying mission here at Ebbing,” Spohn said. “The airplanes could show up right now and operate, although you couldn’t sustain those operations and provide the long-term support an airplane would need for more than a few days or a couple of weeks.”

Spohn said that the MQ-9 and ISR will remain the base’s top priorities in addition to supporting the FMS. One of the challenges in the makeover is making sure the new construction doesn’t interfere with current, active missions.

“Something that is often not understood is that what we were doing before the announcement in 2021 is what we are still doing today,” Spohn said. “That is what we are going to continue to do even after the F-35s get here. Those airmen in the ISR and the operations group are supporting a 24-7, 365 combat mission all around the world.”

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