Times Record, Fort Smith, Ark.
After a year-long competition with several other cities, Ebbing Air National Guard Base in Fort Smith was chosen to host a multi-national training site for F-16 Falcon and F-35 fighter jets.
The competition for the mission comes with an estimated $800 million — $1 billion economic impact on the region, according to the Fort Smith Regional Chamber of Commerce.
The Air Force Secretary announced Thursday that Ebbing Air National Guard Base was chosen to host the training site.
The base exceeded the minimum bidding requirement for military airspace. Ebbing had previously flown F-16s from 1988-2005 under the 188th Fighter Wing.
Singapore’s F-16s will be housed for a security initiative in Pacific Indochina. About two dozen F-35s will be for a multi-national contingent for the air forces of Finland, Poland, Switzerland, and Singapore.
A “rising threat” from China was cited in August by a spokesperson for U.S. Sen. Tom Cotton as one factor in creating the allied training base. Staff members for Cotton and U.S. Rep. Steve Womack said the delegation had petitioned the Federal Aviation Administration to increase military airspace over the River Valley. Col. Jeremiah Gentry, vice commander of the 188th Wing at Ebbing, noted in August the military airspace around the Fort Smith airport exceeded the minimum required for the training site bidding process.
Singaporean delegates visited Fort Smith in March as part of the competition that was announced in July 2020 and was narrowed down from five to three airbases late last year. The four other sites in the competition included Buckley Air Force Base in the Aurora, Colorado area; the Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland; Hulman Air Field just west of Indianapolis; and Selfridge Air National Guard Base in the Detroit area.
An August 2020 Times Record Facebook poll showed 93% of readers were in favor of having Fort Smith serve as the fighter jet training site. There were 288 votes.
Fort Smith has a long history with fighter jets. According to the 188th Wing, in the early 1950s the T-6D “Texan” trainers were flown out of Fort Smith, followed by the TB-26B “Invader.” Also in the 1950s, the Fort Smith base was home to RF-80 and RF-84F fighters. The RF-101, F-100 and F-4Cs fighters were flown out of Fort Smith in the 1970s. F-16 Falcons were flown by the 188th Fighter Wing from 1988 through the 2000s. The 188th then flew the A-10 “Warthog” before changing over to an unmanned flight mission with remotely piloted aircraft. The last A-10 flew out of Ebbing Air National Guard Base in June 2014.
Gov. Asa Hutchinson, U.S. Sens. John Boozman and Tom Cotton, and U.S. Rep. Steve Womack applauded the U.S. Air Force announcement that Ebbing Air National Guard Base in Fort Smith was selected as the home of future F-35 fighter planes and a Republic of Singapore F-16 squadron.
“The selection committee recognized that Arkansas is one of the most military-friendly states in the nation,” Hutchinson said in a news release. “Our tax exemption for military retirement income and our licensing reciprocity initiatives are valuable tools for recruiting qualified employees and their families to Fort Smith.”
The governor noted the progress toward building expansive fifth-generation airspace over Ebbing and an aerial range 4 miles from the base. In his meeting with the Singaporean delegation and the U.S. Department of Defense, Hutchinson said it was clear they understood “the River Valley would wholeheartedly welcome the fighter-jet training.”
Hutchinson also credited members of the military affairs committee for the Arkansas Economic Development Commission in winning the new mission for Ebbing.
“We already are prepared to provide a first-rate quality of life for the families who will move here,” the governor noted. “Congratulations to Major General Kendall Penn, Colonel Leon Dodroe, 188th commander, other USAF leaders, the Air Force and the community leaders whose thoughtful efforts and hard work to sell Fort Smith landed a project that will pay dividends for years.”
Boozman said in the news release that the decision strengthens Arkansas’s role in the nation’s defense.
“I’m proud the U.S. Air Force and the Republic of Singapore recognized what we’ve known all along — Fort Smith is the ideal location for this mission,” Boozman said. “This is a win for the community and the entire state that was made possible in part thanks to the dedicated citizens who have tirelessly advocated the opportunities that exist here.”
Cotton lauded the notion fighter jets would return to the Arkansas River Valley and recognized the “years of hard work by the Fort Smith community, the federal delegation, and the governor.
” Singapore’s F-16s and future F-35s will make good use of Arkansas’s strong workforce and excellent facilities,” Cotton said. “We’re all grateful that the Air Force and our friends from Singapore have chosen Fort Smith for this vital new national security mission.”
Womack said the decision by the Air Force to set the training site in Fort Smith reiterates his stance from the beginning of the competition process and that Fort Smith is best positioned to take on the mission.
“Our strategic location, coupled with the River Valley’s airspace, strong infrastructure, and capable workforce, will allow us to seamlessly support our valued allies and the next generation of air combat capabilities,” Womack said. “I’m proud the Air Force and Singapore recognized this confluence of attributes. Fort Smith has a long history of community support of our defenders, and we look forward to welcoming this cutting-edge fighter fleet to Arkansas.”
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