An F-35A Lightning II performs an aerial maneuver in Reno, Nev., on Sept. 19, 2021.

An F-35A Lightning II performs an aerial maneuver in Reno, Nev., on Sept. 19, 2021. (Nicolas Myers/U.S. Air Force)

WASHINGTON (Tribune News Service) — The U.S. Air Force on Wednesday made final its decision to base its international training center for the F-35 fighter aircraft at Ebbing Air National Guard Base in Fort Smith, Ark., officials said.

“Ebbing ANGB was selected to host this mission based on factors related to mission, infrastructure capacity, community support, environmental considerations and cost,” said Sarah Fiocco, a spokeswoman for the Air Force.

In 2021, Selfridge Air National Guard Base in Michigan had been designated as the Air Force’s tentative backup site for the training center pending an environmental impact study. But an Air Force spokeswoman confirmed Wednesday that Ebbing had been selected as the location to establish an F-35 Lightning II training center for Foreign Military Sales participants.

The decision comes after Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and other Michigan officials had lobbied the Pentagon in recent months to change its mind and choose the Selfridge base in Harrison Township for the center instead of its top choice, the western Arkansas base.

The training center would house up to 36 aircraft (24 F-35s and a dozen F-16s) while the service trains international student pilots and support personnel from Singapore and other nations.

The Air Force previously had said it selected Ebbing in Arkansas because the base previously housed F-16 aircraft and can accommodate the new mission with minimal renovation or new construction.

The Michigan congressional delegation and Macomb County elected officials have been actively pursuing a new fighter mission for Selfridge in a bid to ensure its long-term future as the Air Force intends to retire the aging A-10 Warthog platform ― the backbone of Selfridge’s mission ― in the next decade, if not sooner.

In an effort to sway the military, Whitmer had pledged to Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall III nearly $100 million in state tax dollars to upgrade the facilities and infrastructure like the runway at Selfridge if the Air Force replaces the A-10 there with a “future” fighter mission.

In February, Whitmer and Major General Paul D. Rogers, the adjutant general of the Michigan National Guard, had pressed Biden administration officials on a follow-on platform for Selfridge during a visit to Washington.

Whitmer’s office said Wednesday the governor will continue lobbying President Joe Biden’s administration for a future fighter mission to keep the Selfridge base active.

“As home to the largest military complex airspace east of the Mississippi, along with thousands of businesses leading the way in defense and aerospace industry, Michigan is the ideal location for the next future fighter mission,” Whitmer spokesman Bobby Leddy said in a statement. “The governor has been in touch with our nation’s top defense leaders, including the president, to make our case and we will continue to strongly advocate for a new fighter mission at Selfridge.”

The Michigan delegation for years had lobbied the Air Force to base a squadron of F-35s at Selfridge, as it would help ensure that the base would stay open long term and remain part of the community, where it supports an estimated 5,000 jobs and makes an estimated $850 million in economic impact statewide, according to state figures.

The delegation last month wrote to Kendall about Selfridge, urging him to replace the A-10 squadron there with a long-term fighter mission. The letter was led by freshman U.S. Rep. John James, R- Farmington Hills, and Democratic U.S. Sens. Debbie Stabenow of Lansing and Gary Peters of Bloomfield Township.

The delegation got a letter in response last week from Acting Assistant Secretary of the Air Force Edwin Oshiba, who said the Air Force “is committed to considering each location impacted by the A-10 divestment as a potential location for future missions of national importance.”

“My staff is closely examining this situation and will provide you an update as more information or opportunities become available,” Oshiba wrote, according to a copy of the letter obtained by The Detroit News.

James tweeted Wednesday that Michigan is “perfectly positioned” for security the country’s northern defense, with the manufacturing and innovation needed for the next generation of defense technology.

“The fight for a fighter mission and futures is not over. I don’t give up that easily and neither does Michigan!” he wrote.

Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders on Wednesday applauded the Air Force’s decision in a joint statement with U.S. Sens. John Boozman and Tom Cotton and U.S. Steve Womack, saying it would bring jobs and economic prosperity to the state.

“Today’s Record of Decision makes clear and cements Arkansas’ important role in training, equipping, and supplying our friends across the globe” Sanders said in a statement. “I look forward to welcoming the new U.S. Air Force personnel who will be moving to our state and am excited for all our international partners to discover the meaning of Arkansas hospitality.”

Boozman called the development a “gamechanger” for Fort Smith and the state.

“The Arkansas Congressional Delegation has worked tirelessly along with state and community leaders to demonstrate to the Air Force what we all knew ― Fort Smith is the best location for this mission,” Boozman said.

It’s unclear what’s next for Selfridge. The Air Force has for years tried to retire the A-10, which was designed in the 1970s, arguing it wouldn’t survive a high-end war against adversaries like Russia and China. The A-10s’ mission is close-air support, or providing firepower from the air to target hostile forces in close proximity to friendly troops.

Congress since 2014 repeatedly blocked the Pentagon from divesting the A-10 fleet, arguing they were ideally suited for the theaters in Iraq and Afghanistan.

But last year lawmakers for the first time let the service move forward with retiring 21 A-10s based in Indiana, which are to be replaced with F-16s. The Air Force on Monday proposed a budget that looks to retire 44 more A-10s.

(c)2023 The Detroit News

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