FORT SMITH --The Air Force has formally decided to place its Foreign Military Sales program in Fort Smith, but there's been a slight change in plans.
The Singapore airmen won't be the first to arrive. That group will now be Polish pilots, and their arrival probably will be next year, not in July, according to Lt. Col. Drew "Gus" Nash. Nash is in charge of getting the Fort Smith base training center at Ebbing Air National Guard Base operational.
Members of the Arkansas' congressional delegation and Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders announced the decision to place the program in Fort Smith on Wednesday. U.S. Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall signed a Record of Decision on Friday, making Ebbing the official choice to host the mission.
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 at Fort Smith Regional Airport was selected in 2021 as the preferred location for a pilot training center for Singapore and other countries participating in the program. The proposal was to accommodate up to 24 foreign F-35 aircraft and move 12 F-16s from the Singapore air force, currently with the 425th Fighter Squadron at Luke Air Force Base, Ariz.
They were expected to begin arriving in Fort Smith as early as July, according to original information.
Nash said the earliest foreign planes and pilots would arrive at Ebbing is 2024, and he expects Polish pilots to arrive first. Poland is purchasing 32 F-35 Lightning II aircraft from Lockheed Martin. The total estimated cost of the planes is $4.6 billion.
Nash said the General Dynamics F-16 Fighting Falcons with Singapore's air force would arrive next. The Singaporean air force will have a long-term presence at the base, while pilots and planes from other countries will have a more temporary basis -- about two years.
"The F-35 program is a multiservice, multinational effort that dramatically increases interoperability between the U.S. and other F-35 partner nations," then-Acting Secretary of the Air Force John P. Roth told the Air Force News Service last year. "We are fully committed to the F-35 as the cornerstone of the U.S. Air Force's fighter fleet and look forward to building stronger relationships with nations who want to work by our side."
Mayor George McGill said last week if Ebbing were selected, 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."
The mission is expected to bring 900 military members and their families to the River Valley area.
"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," said U.S. Rep. Steve Womack, a Republican from Rogers.
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.
"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," the governor 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.