Fort Smith pilot training center will have ‘enduring mission’ and ‘enormous’ economic impact

Environmental impact statement process documents for the U.S. Air Force Pilot Training Center project at Fort Smith say the mission will extend through 2029, but a state official believes the center will have an “enduring mission” that could last 30 years or more.

Speaking Tuesday (March 8) at Better Communities Town Hall in Fort Smith, Col. Rob Ator, USAF (Ret.), and director of military affairs for the Arkansas Economic Development Commission, said the pilot training center at Ebbing Air National Guard Base Fort Smith that is part of the Federal Foreign Military Sales (FMS) program is expected to be confirmed in April 2023.

Ebbing was selected on June 8 by Acting Air Force Secretary John Roth to be the long-term pilot training center supporting the F-16 and F-35 fighter jets purchased by Singapore. , Switzerland and other countries participating in the Foreign Military Sales (FMS) program. In addition to Ebbing, the Air Force selected Selfridge Air National Guard Base in Michigan as an alternate site.

The Defense Security Cooperation Agency, the federal agency that operates the FMS, notes that the program provides “responsible arms sales to pursue national security and foreign policy objectives by strengthening defense relationships bilaterally, supporting coalition building and improving interoperability between U.S. forces and friendly armies. and allies.

Ator told the more than 100 people in attendance at Fort Smith Town Hall that with a final decision of April 2023, the first 12 F-16s would arrive in Ebbing in June 2023. The center is estimated to house 345 U.S. service members and bring at Ebbing or Selfridge about 180 members of the Singapore unit and about 300 dependents – 825 in total. He said the analysis suggests that for every direct military job added to a local economy, another job is created.

“It’s like getting a project for 2,000 jobs. It is enormous. It’s like setting up a Nissan (manufacturing) plant in the middle of Fort Smith. It’s a really big deal,” Ator said.

While a final decision isn’t expected until April 2023, work is expected to begin in April on a runway extension at Fort Smith Regional Airport to support the pilot training facility. The City of Fort Smith has committed $5 million for a $22 million project to extend the runway an additional 1,300 feet. The $22 million project is a collaboration between the state, which has committed the remaining $17 million to the project.

Ator said that “barring something really, really nasty in the economic impact study,” the April 2023 final decision will still recommend Fort Smith for the center.

Arkansas Commerce Secretary Mike Preston, who was also part of the Better Communities event, said the state has been working hard in pursuing the pilot training center as it does with any large project. of economic development.

“We had to convince this group from Singapore that Fort Smith Arkansas, and I don’t think a lot of Singaporeans have heard of Fort Smith Arkansas, but we had to convince them that this was the place to go. … They entered. They fell in love with the community. They fell in love with what was happening on the education front, and that’s what ultimately allowed us to win this project,” he said.

Talk Business & Politics, in partnership with First Security Bank, the Arkansas Department of Commerce, and the Fort Smith Regional Chamber of Commerce, hosted the “Better Communities” town hall.

Milton S. Rodgers