EGLIN AFB — A defense spending and policy bill now awaiting President Donald Trump's signature includes more than $100 million in construction funding for the base.
Also locally, the $717 billion military spending plan for the fiscal year beginning Oct. 1 includes $31.9 million for enhancements to the Gulf Coast Test and Training Range, which is heavily used by Eglin Air Force Base and other military installations across Northwest Florida. The bill also calls for a $10 million outlay for construction of an air traffic control tower at Naval Air Station Whiting Field in Milton. NAS Whiting Field is the initial training location for most Navy, Marine and Cost Guard fixed-wing aircraft pilots, and all of the three services' helicopter pilots.
The funding for Eglin will include $34.8 million for an academic center to train pilots of the F-35A, the Air Force version of the U.S. military's next-generation stealth fighter jet. In a related allocation, Eglin will receive $28 million for a dormitory for F-35A student pilots.
The base also is scheduled to receive $38 million for construction of something called a "cyberspace test facility." The funding will come just short of a year after the Air Force established the 96th Cyberspace Test Group at Eglin as part of the 96th Test Wing.
The group, the first and only one of its kind in the Air Force, is dedicated to assessing and addressing digital systems' operation and security. The group's work includes assessing the security of digital offensive and defensive systems, testing the security of data links and other digital aspects of weapons systems such as drones, and assessing the performance of computer software across the Air Force.
In another local development, the defense spending bill authorizes the transfer of 80 acres of Eglin land to the Air Force Enlisted Village, a nonprofit enterprise in Shalimar that houses 500 widows of enlisted Air Force personnel in independent-living apartments and an assisted-living and memory-care facilities. The Enlisted Village is an official Air Force charity.
U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz, who represents Northwest Florida in Congress, called the defense spending bill "critically important" in a recent news release. He said the funding steered to the area "further cements Northwest Florida's reputation as America's premiere location for military training."
The bill received overwhelming support in the House and the Senate on its way to President Trump's desk. That overwhelming support allowed Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio to vote against the spending proposal without endangering its passage.
In a news release, Rubio said he voted against the bill because its final version weakened sanctions against China-headquartered telecommunications company ZTE. Rubio argued that ZTE, which has an American subsidiary, could compromise U.S. telecommunications security and pose a threat to the American military.
"(T)he threat is so severe," Rubio said, " ... that it regrettably brings me to a point where I cannot support a bill I have always supported in my time here."