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Navy says NAS Lemoore is preferred California home for new F-35Cs

An F-35C Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter is test-flown June 27, 2012, near Naval Air Station Patuxent River, Md.

Lemoore Naval Air Station, California, got an important stamp of approval Thursday for becoming the West Coast base of a new generation of jets — news that means the area will continue reaping economic benefits for a long time.

A final environmental impact statement released Thursday names Lemoore as the "preferred alternative" over El Centro Naval Air Facility in Imperial Valley as the home base for the new F-35C Joint Strike Fighter, slated to join the FA-18C Super Hornets that now rule the skies.

After a 30-day waiting period, the recommendation will be delivered to Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus for his expected final approval.

Base commander Capt. Monty Ashlimann said he expects Mabus to sign the "record of decision" in mid-June.

"We are extremely excited for the installation and our surrounding communities," Ashlimann said.

News of the recommendation swept through Kings County government offices.

"We're obviously elated," said John Lean, president of the Kings County Economic Development Corporation. "It will essentially solidify the Navy presence in Kings County for decades to come."

Lemoore Mayor Bill Siegel said "it just makes sense to have it here" because of the base's history as the West Coast Navy fighter jet nerve center.

LNAS is a major economic engine for both Kings County and the San Joaquin Valley.

It employs 7,900 people, including those who work on the jets as well as at the base hospital. Those people and their families hail from Kings and surrounding counties and put an estimated $1 billion a year into the economy.

Supervisor Doug Verboon said he received a phone call Thursday morning from the base commander that Lemoore was named.

"This will create jobs," he said. "There's no telling where we can go from here,"

Facilities must be built for pilot training, instructors, administrators, support personnel, flight simulators, supply and storage, ordinance handing and secure spaces for pre- and post-mission activities, according to the environmental document.

The first F-35Cs will arrive in August 2016, Ashlimann said.

By 2028, there will be 70 F-35C jets at Lemoore for aircraft carriers, and another 30 in a new Fleet Replacement Squadron for training pilots and maintenance crews.

Uniformed military will increase by 500 to 600 people when the replacement squadron is up and running — no earlier than 2017, the Navy said — and by another 550 uniformed military in 2016 as two Super Hornet squadrons relocate from Oceana, Virginia.

The arrival of the new squadrons and the F-35C Fleet Replacement Squadron means that 60 percent of all Navy fighter jets will be based in Lemoore, Ashlimann noted.

Although seven FA-18C Super Hornet squadrons will be replaced by F-35C squadrons, there will still be 10 squadrons of Super Hornets and a Fleet Replacement Squadron for the Super Horne jets, Ashlimann said.

El Centro will still serve an important role in training, he said.

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