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CAMP FOSTER, Okinawa — Kadena Air Base is the only overseas base the Air Force has proposed as a possible location to get the first F-35A Joint Strike Fighters.

The new fighters, which the Air Force considers the aircraft of the future, could end up at Kadena and five other bases after environmental studies are done, according to a statement from the Air Force.

“Our environmental analyses will facilitate our decision-making process as these locations are evaluated,” Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. T. Michael Moseley said in the statement released Wednesday.

The goal is to establish the JSF operational base at Kadena “within the next decade,” Air Force spokesman Lt. Col. Ed Thomas said Thursday in a Pentagon interview.

Kadena is scheduled to get at least 54 strike fighters, which will make up two squadrons of 24 aircraft each, plus some spares, Thomas said.

But it’s too early for the Air Force to know exactly what impact bringing the squadrons to Kadena will have on the number of personnel on the base, or how many new units or facilities will need to be built to help house and maintain the aircraft, Thomas said.

“We haven’t even flown the first aircraft yet,” he said.

The Air Force is planning to begin test flights of the F-35A Lightning II in 2009, with deliveries of the fighter continuing beyond 2025, Thomas said.

Other bases being considered for the first F-35s are Eglin Air Force Base, Fla.; Nellis Air Force Base, Nev.; Edwards Air Force Base, Calif.; Hill Air Force Base, Utah; and Shaw Air Force Base, S.C.

The environmental studies will take up to two years to complete.

In the United States, the environmental studies are required under the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969, Thomas said.

The provisions of the act kick in whenever “there is a major federal action” on a federal property that involves spending a large sum of taxpayer’s money, major government construction or an influx of federal workers, he said.[END]

During the studies at the four proposed U.S. bases, the Air Force will send specialists to analyze the impact of the fighter’s presence on animals and plant life, noise levels, air quality, and other environmental factors, as well as impacts on the local economy, Thomas said.

After the Environmental Protection Agency certifies that the Air Force’s draft report complies with the law, the Air Force will make the document available to the public, hold hearings in the community where each proposed base is located, Thomas said.

After all the comments on the draft report are collected and analyzed, Air Force officials will decide whether it is possible to put the F-35 at a particular base and still remain within federal law, or to seek out an alternative location.

The entire environmental impact process “takes anywhere from 16 months to two years,” Thomas said.

Asked about the potential for the proposed bases to pass the environmental legalities, Thomas said, “A lot of planning goes into the base recommendations up front.”

“We’re not picking bases that are not going to meet the requirements.”

In Kadena, the Air Force will go through the same documentation and analyses it uses under the National Environmental Policy Act, even though the law doesn’t apply outside the United States, Thomas said.

“We want to be responsible stewards when we are in countries where we are guests, so the rigorous efforts that happen stateside also happen overseas,” Thomas said.

The difference in Japan, Thomas said, is that there will be no public hearings on the draft environmental impact statement, “for security reasons.”

Instead, “all the feedback [with the Japanese] is through diplomatic channels” at the U.S. State Department, Thomas said.

The environmental evaluation should take the same amount of time in Japan as it does in the United States, or around two years, he said.

Thomas said he was optimistic about the chances that the F-35 will successfully pass the environmental tests in Kadena, particularly because the two squadrons of F-35s will eventually replace the base’s F-16 squadrons.

“We’re really not talking about a new mission for Kadena,” Thomas said.

Kadena “is not necessarily the only overseas base” that will eventually house the Joint Strike Fighter, Thomas said.

Subsequent announcements of more operational squadrons may include additional overseas locations, Thomas said. He did not know when the Air Force would release that information.

“The Air Force continues to develop its plans for the F-35 and its bases,” Thomas said.

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