FORT SMITH -- The city has a lot of work left before the first military members and their families land in the River Valley as part of the Foreign Military Sales program.
Foreign Military Sales is a security assistance program authorized by the Arms Export Control Act. The act allows the U.S. to sell defense equipment, conduct training and provide services to a foreign country when the president deems doing so will strengthen U.S. national security and promote world peace.
Ebbing Air National Guard Base at Fort Smith Regional Airport was named the Air Force's preferred location for a pilot training center for the Foreign Military Sales program. The original plan was to move up to 24 foreign Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II aircraft and 12 General Dynamics F-16 Fighting Falcons from the Singapore air force to Fort Smith. The group currently is with the the 425th Fighter Squadron at Luke Air Force Base in Glendale, Ariz.
They were expected to begin arriving in Fort Smith as early as July, according to original information. The mission is expected to bring 900 military members and their families to the River Valley.
Lt. Col. Drew "Gus" Nash, in announcing the decision March 15 to move the program to Fort Smith, said Polish pilots likely will be the first group and their arrival probably will be next year, not in July. Nash is in charge of getting the Fort Smith base training center at Ebbing operational.
Poland is buying 32 F-35 Lightning II aircraft from Lockheed Martin.
Nash said the F-16s with Singapore's air force would arrive next.
The U.S. Air Force released its environmental impact statement for the program in the Federal Register in February.
Col. Jeremiah Gentry, 188th Wing commander at Ebbing, said Wednesday the environmental process normally takes two to three years, but was shortened to 15 months for the Foreign Military Sales program because of how important it is to get F-35 training up and running. He said despite the shortened timeline, countries are arriving later than first expected because of needed renovations to Ebbing, and the contract process has just begun.
"It's the process of contract, bid, design and review, and then construction, which takes about 15 to 24 months. So we are accelerating as fast as we can on both of them," Gentry said. "Singapore requested if it's already going to take 15 months, can we please align with the school system for quality of life? Instead of trying to move in the winter or late fall, can we wait another nine months? That's about the time it was going to take for the design and renovation to complete anyways, so that was not why they moved in front, why Poland is coming first."
Gentry said it's going to cost $600-$800 million to get the F-16 and F-35 programs operational. He said the exact figures continue to change because of inflation.
Gentry said construction will include renovating facilities to maintain the airplanes, installing emergency arresting gear to help decelerate an aircraft as it lands and finishing the runway expansion.
The runway extension costs roughly $24 million and will add 1,300 feet at Ebbing to prepare for the military mission. Construction is expected to be finished by early spring this year.
Construction was able to start before Fort Smith was selected for the project because it will also help Fort Smith Regional Airport land larger airplanes and possibly add another hub to grow both providers and destinations.
The airport has a one-hub service, with several daily flights to and from Dallas-Fort Worth through American Airlines.
City Administrator Carl Geffken said now that the decision has been signed, the city has less work to do with the program than the federal government and Air Force have.
"We still have our moratorium in place, and homes are still being built, and we're still moving all of that forward," Geffken said. "But all of that work came through the environmental impact process, now that's done, and that resulted in the approval. Now it's going to shift more, probably, to the federal government."
City directors approved the moratorium in June. It temporarily halts residential building surrounding the airport to do a sound study and potentially modify area building codes in preparation for the fighter planes.
Geffken explained at the directors' study session the sound study would keep the city from expanding building codes unnecessarily and thus wasting builders' time and money.
Maggie Rice, director of planning and development, said the moratorium area contains 5,945 acres, 2,297 of which are residentially zoned. She said the moratorium will be in effect until Dec. 31 or until Fort Smith sound regulations are established.
"The moratorium does not prohibit demolition, repair or remodeling of a residential structure, the addition of accessory structures, fencing or decks on residential property, commercial or industrial development, including hotels, additions to single-family homes as long as it does not increase the gross square footage by more than 25%," she said.
"We are trying to move as fast as we can because this is an extremely important project to the Air Force and to international security," Gentry said. "Just know that the Air Force and Ebbing and the state of Arkansas are doing everything we can, not to rush it, but because it's so important. So we're moving as fast as we can. Now it's looking like late 2024, early 2025 for Poland and summer of 2025 for Singapore. That's just about as fast as you can make it happen."
Mayor George McGill has said the River Valley could see an annual economic impact of $800 million to $1 billion.
"We're very excited for all that this means for Fort Smith and the region," he 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. This is a big achievement for the area and one that will pay dividends for decades to come."