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“Significant” federal funding has been approved for work in the ongoing effort to establish a foreign pilot training center in Fort Smith, but more will be needed for the estimated $765 million to complete the unique U.S. Air Force project.

The office of U.S. Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark., announced Monday (March 11) that $83 million was approved in the MilCon-VA bill recently approved by Congress and signed into law by President Joe Biden. The primary focus of the bill was to provide additional funds and programs for veterans’ healthcare but it included money for other projects.

“This bill helps ensure Ebbing Air National Guard Base will become the premier pilot training center in the U.S. and reinforces our commitments to allies participating in the future pilot training mission in Fort Smith. Providing the necessary infrastructure and resources now will elevate the installation into a vital national security asset that enhances America’s deterrence posture well into the future. The repeated delays in advancing this critical funding across the finish line were unfortunate, but I appreciate the persistence of my colleagues in the Senate and House of Representatives to find common ground and deliver certainty for several federal agencies in allocating taxpayer dollars more wisely and efficiently,” Boozman said in the statement.

The plan to locate a foreign military pilot training center in Fort Smith was made in June 2021, but the final “record of decision” from the U.S. Air Force was made in March 2023. That decision released funding to create the center. Boozman was able to initially secure $28 million for center design and planning.

Ebbing will be the next home for the 425th Fighter Squadron, a Republic of Singapore F-16 training unit now based at Luke Air Force Base in Arizona. The pilot training center is planned to support F-16 and F-35 fighter planes purchased by Singapore, Switzerland and other countries participating in the Foreign Military Sales (FMS) program.

“This is a substantial milestone for the community in the development of the FMS program at Ebbing Air National Guard Base,” said Tim Allen, president and CEO of the Fort Smith Regional Chamber of Commerce. “This legislative package and the $83 million appropriation would not have happened without the support and diligence of our Congressional delegation. This allows us to continue on the fast pace we’ve already established and move closer to the reality of foreign military pilots calling Fort Smith home.”

The new facility will cost at least $765 million to become fully operational, according to initial estimates. Air Force officials have said the earliest planes and pilots from foreign nations could arrive at Ebbing would be in late 2024. The full complement of 12 F-16s and 24 F-35s from various nations could arrive in fiscal year 2026 at the earliest.

Of the $83 million, $54 million is for the construction of a three-bay hanger supporting F-35 pilot training, $22 million is for the construction of a Special Access Program Facility and Aircrew Flight Equipment Facility supporting F-35 pilot training, and $7 million is for the planning and design of an academic training facility to support future missions at Ebbing.

“It’s significant, and it will be immediate,” Rob Ator, a retired Air Force colonel and the Arkansas Economic Development Commission director of Military Affairs, said when asked when the money would be available for the Air Force to use in Fort Smith.

Ator said some of the construction will replace temporary facilities now used at Ebbing for the center. He also said more funding could come from the pending 2024 defense appropriations bill. That legislation, according to Ator, could provide “in excess of $100 million” for the pilot training center. Ator said Boozman and U.S. Rep. Steve Womack, R-Rogers, are also leading efforts for more Ebbing funding in the fiscal year 2025 budgets.

“It’s definitely moving, and that’s important to relay to the citizens of Fort Smith. Up until now, it’s been somewhat of a theoretical thing. … But now it’s important for us to signal that this is not theoretical, this is moving,” Ator said.

The MilCon-VA bill also included $67 million for the construction of Interstate 49 near Fort Smith, $5 million to complete work on a new Arkansas National Guard Readiness Center at Fort Chaffee, and $12 million for Fort Smith water transmission.

Read the story on Talk Business & Politics here.