Arkansas Builds Military Presence with New Air Force Mission

 June 29, 2021

Fighter jets will be flying overhead in Arkansas soon, with a new U.S. Air Force mission planned for Ebbing Air National Guard Base in Fort Smith.

Earlier this month, the U.S. Air Force selected Ebbing ANGB as its preferred location for a new F-35 Lighting II training center, serving Foreign Military Sales participants. It will also be the new home for the Republic of Singapore’s F-16 Fighting Falcon training unit, which will be moving from Arizona.

These F-16 and F-35 training units are a welcome addition to the growing military landscape in Arkansas, which consists of five total installations. These installations include Ebbing Air National Guard Base, Camp Robinson, Fort Chaffee Joint Maneuver Training Center, Little Rock Air Force Base, and the Pine Bluff Arsenal.

This mission will add a minimum of 24 aircraft ­– 12 F-16s and 12 F-35s – ­to Ebbing Air National Guard Base with a total capacity of 36 aircraft. The United States Air Force will contribute 230 personnel to the base, a number that could rise to 350. Meanwhile, the Republic of Singapore will have around 300 military personnel at the base with 300 dependent families. In total, this project is bringing more than 600 personnel, along with families, to the Fort Smith region.

The mission is estimated have a $1 billion annual economic impact on the state.

Bringing this mission to Arkansas has been part of a concentrated effort to strengthen the state’s military presence. Since the beginning of Gov. Asa Hutchinson’s administration, he has championed the military in Arkansas, creating the Governor’s Military Affairs Committee and the Arkansas Economic Development Commission’s (AEDC) Division of Military Affairs to support military installations around the state. The committee was tasked with growing Arkansas’s military installations and missions and advocating for the state at the state and national level.

In recent legislative sessions, lawmakers have made Arkansas one of the most military-friendly states in the nation. Thanks to these efforts, active-duty service members, veterans and their spouses receive enhanced licensure portability, enabling them to practice their professions with ease. Active-duty armed forces members and veterans also qualify for in-state tuition and fees at Arkansas higher education institutions, trade schools, and vocational schools. The state also exempts armed service members from paying income taxes on a set amount of service pay, while military retired pay is exempted from state income tax.

The military has been paying attention to these efforts.

The 2019 Support of Military Families report for Ebbing ANGB showed that the base was rated green – the highest rating – for public education and licensure portability. All 10 license categories were rated green, and out of a total 22 categories, Ebbing ANGB was rated green in 16.

As a result of prioritizing our military installations and service members, Arkansas has seen the opening of the 223rd Cyber Operations Squadron at the Little Rock Air Force Base, as well as a new unmanned flying mission at Ebbing ANGB and a $100 million production increase at Pine Bluff Arsenal. Over the last two years, there has been a 300 percent increase in usage at Razorback Range, along with more missions added at Fort Chaffee.

These victories were the build-up to the announcement that Ebbing ANGB would be the future home for the new F-35 Lighting II training center and the Republic of Singapore’s F-16 Fighting Falcon training unit.

But the decision was far from certain. The Secretary of the Air Force set the process in motion in July 2020 to establish the training centers, and Ebbing ANGB was one of five potential locations that met the requirements for the mission.

Economic development is a team sport. In the same way that we work on traditional economic development projects, our state and local officials went to work to secure this mission for Arkansas. Working in lockstep, Gov. Hutchinson, our congressional delegation, AEDC, the Fort Smith Regional Chamber of Commerce, the Arkansas Air National Guard and Arkansas Military Department and the Governor’s Military Affairs Committee, along with many others, all played a role in swaying the Air Force to bring the mission to Fort Smith.

The Royal Singapore Air Force (RSAF) made a site visit to Fort Smith in March 2021, and the red carpet was fully rolled out for them. During the visit, RSAF officials expressed concern about the length of the runway. Although the runway met the U.S. Air Force’s standards, the RSAF delegation believed it was too short, despite being impressed by the visit.

Coming up short was not an option, and our team was determined to find a solution. Gov. Hutchinson committed $17 million toward the total $22 million cost of extending the runway an additional 1,300 feet. The Fort Smith City Board of Directors approved the remaining $5 million for the project.

Concerns swept aside, Ebbing ANGB was named the top contender for the training missions on June 3.

The Department of the Air Force will be conducting an environmental impact analysis to ensure that Ebbing ANGB can support the future F-16 and F-35 missions. The final decision on the mission location is expected to come in spring 2023.

Until then, we are continuing to work to improve Arkansas’ military capabilities. We are working to expand the airspace available for this mission to provide a full spectrum of training options. This will be an ongoing team effort, which will benefit multiple military units in surrounding states.

Working together, state officials, local economic developers, and our congressional delegation have made Arkansas a top pick for military missions and projects. With the state’s wealth of installations and resources and its military-friendly environment, Arkansas has all the elements to keep our country’s armed forces at peak readiness.  

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    Blog post contributed by:

    Mike Preston
    Secretary of Commerce
    Executive Director
    Arkansas Economic Development Commission
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