WASHINGTON — Eglin Air Force Base is the Air Force's preferred alternative for an additional F-35A training squadron, a move that could bring as many as 500 new airmen to the installation.
There is, however, a possible catch, however slight it may be, in the plan.
According to the Air Force's Thursday announcement of its preferred site for a new F-35A training squadron, Eglin "will only receive the additional F-35 training unit if the F-22 Raptor formal training unit temporarily operating at Eglin AFB is permanently moved to Joint Base Langley-Eustis, Virginia."
The Air Force announced weeks ago that Joint Base Langley-Eustis is its preferred site for the F-22 formal training unit, which is currently at Eglin. The F-22 unit came to Eglin after being relocated from its previous home at Tyndall Air Force Base in nearby Panama City after that base was leveled by October's Hurricane Michael.
After Hurricane Michael, U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., whose district includes Eglin AFB, made the case to Acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan that Eglin was the best place to temporarily relocate Tyndall’s F-22 operations. But, Gaetz said recently, when talk turned to a permanent basing solution, Shanahan told him “that Langley represented a lower MRO (Maintenance, Repair and Operations) cost given their existing F-22 mission.”
The final F-22 basing decision is contingent on environmental impact studies currently under way at both Eglin and Joint Base Langley-Eustis. The studies could take months to complete.
Nonetheless, Thursday's announcement that Eglin is the preferred site for the new F-35 squadron, the second such squadron at the base, was being met with enthusiasm, both at Eglin and in the halls of Congress.
"We're excited about the mission growing here," Lt. Savannah Stephens, public affairs officer for Eglin's 33rd Fighter Wing, under which the new squadron would operate, said after the Air Force's Thursday announcement. "It's a great win for the 33rd Fighter Wing."
It is not yet clear how many new aircraft will come to the base with the new squadron, which has yet to be given a unit designation, according to Stephens. But, Stephens said, "an additional 24 F-35A primary aircraft and 2 back-up inventory aircraft would not exceed" the number of aircraft the wing is authorized to have. The wing currently has 33 F-35s on its flightline, and is authorized to have a total of 59 of the stealth fighter jets.
The F-35A is the Air Force version of the fifth-generation fighter jet. The F-35B flown by the Marine Corps is a short-takeoff/vertical-landing version of the jet, and the F-35C is a Navy version designed for aircraft carrier operations.
Air Force and Department of Defense officials had been considering whether to bring additional F-35s to Eglin AFB since at least late last year, as part of discussions regarding "strategic basing" of the aircraft, determining where the aircraft would fit best in meeting military mission requirements.
Eglin AFB has been an F-35 pilot and maintenance training center since 2012, and was the location of the F-35 Initial Joint Training Site hosting Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps F-35s. The Marine Corps relocated its F-35Bs in 2014, and the Navy announced its plans to relocate its F-35C squadron, better known as the "Grim Reapers," in December.
“By basing the next F-35A training squadron at Eglin Air Force Base, we are taking advantage of existing facilities and training air space,” Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson said in Thursday's announcement.
According to information from Team Eglin Public Affairs, additional F-35As are expected to begin arriving at the base in the fall of 2021, with the new squadron slated to reach full operational capability by spring 2023.
Also according to Team Eglin Public Affairs, a proposal to bring as many as three F-35 stealth fighter jet squadrons to Tyndall AFB beginning in 2023 will not affect the F-35 pilot and maintenance missions at Eglin Air Force Base.
The announcement that Eglin AFB is the preferred site for a new F-35A training squadron was hailed Thursday by Gaetz and U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., in a joint statement from Washington, D.C.
“I welcome the decision by the Air Force to make Florida’s Eglin Air Force Base home to two F-35 squadrons,” Rubio said. “My highest priority is ensuring the men and women who proudly and bravely serve our country have the tools they need to succeed."
"President Trump and Air Force Secretary Wilson have once again proven their deep and abiding commitment to the United States Armed Forces, especially in Northwest Florida," Gaetz said. "Eglin Air Force Base has the capability to house, train, and equip our next generation of F-35 pilots. This is a tremendous victory for Florida’s 1st Congressional District, and we stand proud to have them flying through our skies in Northwest Florida.”