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Fort Smith lands Air Force foreign mission

by Monica Brich | March 15, 2023 at 11:46 a.m. | Updated March 15, 2023 at 12:39 p.m.
The entrance to Ebbing Air National Guard Base as seen on Tuesday. (NWA Democrat-Gazette/Thomas Saccente)

FORT SMITH — The Department of the Air Force has officially decided to make Ebbing Air National Guard Base the home of the Foreign Military Sales Program Pilot Training Center.

U.S. Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall signed a Record of Decision on Friday, March 10 making Ebbing the official choice to host the mission.

Ebbing at Fort Smith Regional Airport was selected in 2021 as the Air Force’s preferred location for a pilot training center for Singapore and other countries participating in the Foreign Military Sales program. The proposal would accommodate up to 24 foreign Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II aircraft and move 12 General Dynamics F-16 Fighting Falcons from the Singapore air force, currently with the the 425th Fighter Squadron at Luke Air Force Base in Glendale, Ariz.

While Ebbing was the preferred location, the Air Force chose Selfridge Air National Guard Base in Harrison Township, Mich., as a second option if the center couldn’t be at Fort Smith for some reason..

The mission is expected to bring 900 military members and their families to the River Valley area.

“We’re very excited for all that this means for Fort Smith and the region,” said Mayor George McGill. “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. This is a big achievement for the area and one that will pay dividends for decades to come.”

Patrick Jeanes with Air Education Training and Command in San Antonio, the parent command for the new Fort Smith mission, said at a public meeting in February if Fort Smith was selected, residents can expect F-16s around June this year and the first F-35s in July 2024.

“Fort Smith’s central location, existing infrastructure, and airspace were essential differentiators but the people of Fort Smith and their desire to support national defense were truly the deciding factor,” 3rd District Rep. Steve Womack, R-Rogers, said.

Gov. Sarah Sanders said in a news release the decision makes it clear Arkansas is an international powerhouse and plays an important role in training, equipping and supplying friends across the globe. She said she looks forward to welcoming the new Air Force personnel and is excited for the program’s 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,” Sanders said.

Fort Smith Ward 3 Director Lavon Morton said it was also thanks to the work of McGill, City Administrator Carl Geffken and Fort Smith Regional Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Tim Allen that Fort Smith was selected.

“It will have an extraordinary economic impact in the immediate future, and for many years to come,” Morton said. “It’s certainly the biggest thing that’s happened in Fort Smith since I’ve lived here in the past 25 years. Now we have to make sure our city is fully ready to accommodate all that’s going to come with the Foreign Military Sales program, and I am confident we will be able to do that.”

Retired Air Force Col. Robert Ator, director of military affairs at the Arkansas Economic Development Commission said Arkansas has a long history of supporting the military and its missions.

“The addition of hosting the Royal Singapore Air Force and the F-35 Foreign Military Sales Pilot Training Center only furthers that history and emphatically places Arkansas on the international stage for strategic deterrence, using the world’s most technologically advanced aircraft,” he said. “This basing action is an example of the local community, the State of Arkansas, and the United States Air Force working together for our shared future and the stability of the globe at a time of great strategic competition.”

“This is a game changer for Fort Smith and our state that will enhance economic development and opportunity in the region and strengthen Arkansas’s role in defending our national security,” Sen. John Boozman, R-Rogers, said.

“I’m pleased that the Air Force has selected Fort Smith as the location for this training mission, another positive step in bringing a manned flying mission back to Arkansas. I will continue to work with the Air Force, our congressional delegation, and Governor Sanders to bring the sound of freedom back to the River Valley,” Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Little Rock, said.

University of Arkansas at Fort Smith Chancellor Terisa Riley, said she is grateful for the college’s relationship with the community, which allowed UAFS to have a seat at the table from the beginning conversations of the program.

“On behalf of the university, I made presentations to prospective partners from other countries so they could be aware of the capacity and commitment we have to educating service members and their families,” she said. “We are deeply invested in the economic development in our community, and our UAFS Center for Economic Development will be at the forefront of building the sustainable businesses that will serve our growing community. I am grateful for strong partnerships in our region that were leveraged to bring this project to fruition.”

The Air Force released its environmental impact statement for the program in the Federal Register in February, which includes comments received from the public and stakeholders from a 45-day draft period last fall.

The Air Force was then in a mandatory 30-day waiting period before signing its record of decision.

At the first environmental impact statement public meeting, which was held in Fort Smith, David Martin, environmental impact statement project manager from Air Force Civil Engineer Center, National Environmental Policy Act division, at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland, explained the policy act requires federal agencies to identify the affected environment, evaluate the potential environmental consequences and identify environmental permits and suggested mitigation measures to minimize environmental impacts, if required.

The Air Force is responsible for the scope and content of the environmental impact statement, and the Federal Aviation Administration is a cooperating agency because the scope of the proposed action involves activities under its jurisdiction by law.

The statement says Ebbing and Selfridge had several commonalities including the number of F-16 and F-35 aircraft they can accommodate; any flight operations could take place within existing air space without adding or altering configurations; the number of personnel would increase overall by about 384 with 800 dependents; and barrier arresting kits, F-35 simulator training facilities and other support facilities would need to be constructed or buildings retrofitted to support the Foreign Military Sales program.

The statement said time-averaged noise levels at Ebbing would remain below 65 decibels, with up to an additional 7,855 acres or 12,654 affected by the average sound level. It said low-level overflights may have a minor to moderate adverse impact on persons engaged in outdoor recreational activities, and a moderate to high impact on wilderness users and their experience of primitive recreation.

The statement said the estimated number of housing units within the 65 decibel or greater range is between 2,579 and 3,014, with the noise potentially decreasing property value by roughly 2% per decibel increase. It said the program would have a disproportionately high and adverse health or environmental effects on minority populations surrounding the installation, including children and the elderly.

The statement said mitigation measures for sound will be defined in the record of decision.

The statement said there would be no effects to archaeological resources, architectural resources, traditional cultural properties or wildlife on or surrounding the installation. It said construction activities would result in increased surface water runoff, which has the potential for soil erosion and minor impact to surface water, groundwater and wetlands. These impacts would be minimized through design elements and best managements practices.

“There is the potential for construction projects to occur in wetlands, and a field wetland delineation would be required for airfield construction prior to ground-disturbance activities,” the statement reads. “There would be no impacts to floodplains.”

The statement concludes there’ll be no significant air quality impacts should the program be at Ebbing. It says noise mitigation such as altering flight profiles would decrease carbon monoxide emissions, but there would be a similar increase in annual emissions in the region due to the increase in aircraft.

Other environmental resources weren’t analyzed in the statement because they were determined to have neutral or no effects, which includes airspace, hazardous material and waste, safety, infrastructure, soils and geology, visual effects and natural resources and energy.

Print Headline: Fort Smith lands Air Force foreign mission for F-16 planes


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