A new F-35 training site under construction in northwest Arkansas is preparing to welcome fighter pilots from around the world this fall.

Ebbing Air National Guard Base will become the latest U.S.-based site dedicated to training foreign pilots across the global F-35 Joint Strike Fighter enterprise, which now encompasses more than 3,500 jets in 18 countries.

The new hub will allow more instructor pilots from the U.S. — the largest member of the F-35 coalition at more than 2,400 jets — to share their expertise with a rotating cast of nations who have less operational experience with one of the world’s most advanced fighters or lack the resources to host a multinational school of their own.

Learning from the U.S. can make the international coalition sharper in combat, Col. David Skalicky, who oversees the project as commander of the 33rd Fighter Wing at Florida’s Eglin Air Force Base, told Air Force Times. Military officials argue that familiarity can prove crucial if the countries must go to war together.

“This is really about increasing the capability and capacity of our allies and partners,” he said.

Poland is slated to arrive as the first foreign F-35 user on campus in September, followed by Finland, Germany, Switzerland and Singapore in the years ahead.

They’ll learn from the new 85th Fighter Group and 57th Fighter Squadron, expected to open at Ebbing July 2, an Air Force spokesperson said.

F-35 pilots from Italy, Norway, Denmark and the Netherlands already train at Arizona’s Luke Air Force Base; Belgium is slated to begin lessons there as well. But Luke lacks the resources and room to welcome students from more than a dozen other countries, spurring the international coalition to look for another site where foreign pilots can learn from the Americans.

The U.S. Air Force tapped Ebbing to host the foreign training mission in March 2023 after a fierce, yearslong lobbying effort by Michigan’s congressional delegation to bring the jets to Selfridge ANGB north of Detroit.

Typically, foreign militaries learn from U.S. pilots at bases that are already operating the same aircraft. Not so for Ebbing, at which F-35 training will become the only on-site flying mission.

The base will build new F-35 pilots from scratch, with students who have already qualified to fly fighters but are getting their first taste of the fifth-generation plane itself, Skalicky said.

As many as 36 jets will arrive on base, including 24 F-35s. Ebbing will also host up to 12 F-16s as part of a Singaporean training unit that is transferring from Luke, said Col. Adam Rice, an Air Education and Training Command official tasked with coordinating the project’s progress.

The Air Force expects about four pilots will graduate from Ebbing in 2025 before growing to about three dozen graduates each year through the end of the decade, Rice said.

Trainees will start their seven-month Joint Strike Fighter journey at Eglin — the Air Force’s closest active duty F-35 site — where they’ll be exposed to the F-35′s controls and tactics in classroom lessons and simulated sorties. The program will be split between Eglin and Ebbing until the new location finishes building a simulator facility of its own.

In Florida, they’ll jump from virtual takeoffs and landings to one-on-one aerial dogfights and multi-jet offensives, Skalicky said.

“We usually progress from that point into surface attack [and] suppression of enemy air defense, as well as some higher mission sets like offensive counter-air, escorting strikers … or being part of a strike package,” he said.

After about three months, students will trek more than 700 miles to Ebbing for the second half of the course, when they’ll take to the skies to practice what they’ve learned.

Rice said the project is working to expand the existing training airspace at Ebbing. The site may bring in low-cost threat emitters, or hardware that replicates surface-to-air missile systems so pilots can learn to evade enemy air defenses.

Air Education and Training Command boss Lt. Gen. Brian Robinson “has promised ‘first-class’ training, not ‘world-class’ training, at Ebbing,” Rice said. “It won’t be a training space like Nellis, for instance, but it will be good-quality training for the [foreign military sales] customers.”

Some who graduate will head back to their home countries, where they’ll join their first F-35 units. Others will return to Eglin for further training to become instructor pilots in order to build their own domestic training pipelines, Skalicky said.

To transform the Air National Guard base of about 1,000 troops and civilian employees and an MQ-9 drone wing into a top-tier training range for high-tech fighters, the Air Force is embarking on a $850 million project that is expected to finish by the end of 2028.

Because the clock is ticking for troops to arrive at Ebbing, the Air Force plans to first host classes in an array of trailers and tension-fabric shelters on base. Those temporary facilities will tide over the training enterprise for a few years as the service renovates existing spaces like maintenance shops, while building Joint Strike Fighter-specific facilities for simulators and storage.

Singapore, whose forces will be permanently stationed at Ebbing, is bringing the F-35B, the vertical takeoff-and-landing version of the jet also flown by the U.S. Marine Corps. Because the Air Force’s variant doesn’t have the same capability, the service has to find other instructor pilots to help the Singaporeans, and ensure the flightline is reinforced with special concrete that can withstand the jet’s forces, Rice said.

In September, airmen from Eglin will hold a training exercise at Ebbing to wring out any issues at the site before foreign countries begin arriving later that month, Skalicky said.

But there’s still plenty of work ahead for the complicated project, which requires Air Force officials to weave the wants and needs of multiple countries into a cohesive training ground while navigating erratic congressional funding and a volatile construction market.

“Post-COVID, we’ve had challenges with supply and demand, construction, laborers, you name it. We’re still experiencing that across the enterprise,” said Col. George Nichols, deputy director of facility engineering at the Air Force Civil Engineer Center.

“[I’ve] been doing this for 23 years, and this is one of the most complex beddowns that we’ve done,” he said.

Rachel Cohen is the editor of Air Force Times. She joined the publication as its senior reporter in March 2021. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Frederick News-Post (Md.), Air and Space Forces Magazine, Inside Defense, Inside Health Policy and elsewhere.

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