The United States Air Force has selected Ebbing Air National Guard Base, Fort Smith, Arkansas, as its preferred location to establish an F-35 Lightning II training center for Foreign Military Sales.
Terre Haute Regional Airport-Hulman Field was among five final sites considered for the training center.
The Arkansas site will also be the new location for the 425th Fighter Squadron, a Republic of Singapore Air Force F-16 Fighting Falcon training unit currently based at Luke Air Force Base, Arizona. The new training center will have capacity for up to 36 fighter aircraft.
“The F-35 program is a multi-service, multi-national effort that dramatically increases interoperability between the U.S. and other F-35 partner nations,” Acting Secretary of the Air Force John P. Roth said in a statement Thursday. “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.”
Terre Haute officials said despite the decision, the airport remains a viable facility for other opportunities.
“I think we should be proud of what we did. We put a great package together,” said Rick Burger, a board member at the Terre Haute airport who was part of the effort to bring the training center to the Wabash Valley. “I think we are on the map now and more people know what Terre Haute has to offer.”
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 that doing so will strengthen U.S. national security and promote world peace.
Following this decision, the Department of the Air Force will conduct an environmental impact analysis to confirm Ebbing ANGB can support the new F-35 and F-16 missions. This selection also establishes Selfridge ANGB, Michigan, as an alternate location. The Air Force anticipates making a final basing decision in spring 2023.
Airport Director Jeff Hauser voiced disappointment, but said he, too, is confident in the airport’s future.
“I am disappointed, yet we are going to keep moving forward and try to get what we can, but I would have loved to have fighters (jets) in the Terre Haute area again,” said Hauser, who was among the last four pilots to fly F-16s out of Terre Haute in September 2007.
At that time, Hauser served as a colonel and was commander of the Indiana Air Guard 181st Fighter Wing, then based in Terre Haute. He later served as commander of the 181st Intelligence Wing from April 2008 to August of 2011. He retired from the Air Guard as a brigadier general in April 2018. He’s been airport director since January 2015.
Community leaders, with the Terre Haute Chamber of Commerce taking point, first started working in July 2020 to bring the training center to Terre Haute. That effort included winning the support of Indiana National Guard Adjutant General Dale Lyles.
Economic impact of landing the fighter jet project was estimated at $500 million.
“There was a lot of effort that went into (presenting the airport as a site) between the 181st Intelligence Wing and a group of community leaders who came together under the West Central Indiana Defense Network that we created a few years ago to help advocate for these kinds of opportunities,” said Chamber President Kristin Craig.
“We created a physical asset guide, a nice pamphlet that shows the incredible assets that we have here. It talks about the airport, the community,” Craig. “We met with the adjutant general, with our state legislators, we did a lot of work behind the scenes to really increase Terre Haute’s visibility in this.”
Craig said she remains optimistic for future opportunities.
“We were one of five finalists being scrutinized at the highest levels of the U.S. Air Force, so the visibility alone that we received by people taking a look at this and understanding what a great community we are and what a great defense asset we are,” Craig said.
“I feel really optimistic about future projects.”