Navy says Lemoore is preferred home for new jets

The Fresno BeeMay 15, 2014 

Lemoore Naval Air Station is a key step closer to being the home base for F-35C Joint Strike Fighter jets.

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Lemoore Naval Air Station got an important stamp of approval Thursday for becoming the West Coast base of a new generation of jets -- news that means the Valley will continue reaping economic benefits for a long time.

A final environmental impact statement released Thursday names Lemoore as the "preferred alternative" over El Centro Naval Air Facility in Imperial Valley as the home base for the new F-35C Joint Strike Fighter, slated to join the FA-18C Super Hornets that now rule the skies.

After a 30-day waiting period, the recommendation will be delivered to Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus for his expected final approval.

Base commander Capt. Monty Ashliman said he expects Mabus to sign the "record of decision" in mid-June.

"We are extremely excited for the installation and our surrounding communities," Ashliman said.

News of the recommendation swept through Kings County government offices.

"We're obviously elated," said John Lehn, president of the Kings County Economic Development Corporation. "It will essentially solidify the Navy presence in Kings County for decades to come."

Lemoore Mayor Billy Siegel said "it just makes sense to have it here" because of the base's history as the West Coast Navy fighter jet nerve center.

Lemoore NAS is a major economic engine for both Kings County and the San Joaquin Valley.

It employs 7,900 people, including those who work on the jets as well as at the base hospital. Those people and their families hail from Kings and surrounding counties and put an estimated $1 billion a year into the economy.

Supervisor Doug Verboon said he received a phone call Thursday morning from the base commander that Lemoore was named.

"This will create jobs," he said. "There's no telling where we can go from here."

Facilities must be built for pilot training, instructors, administrators, support personnel, flight simulators, supply and storage, ordnance handing and secure spaces for pre- and post-mission activities, according to the environmental document.

The first F-35Cs will arrive in August 2016, Ashliman said.

By 2028, there will be 70 F-35C jets at Lemoore for aircraft carriers, and another 30 in a new Fleet Replacement Squadron for training pilots and maintenance crews.

Uniformed military will increase by 500 to 600 people when the replacement squadron is up and running -- no earlier than 2017, the Navy said -- and by another 550 uniformed military in 2016 as two Super Hornet squadrons relocate from Oceana NAS in Virginia Beach, Va.

The arrival of the new squadrons and the F-35C Fleet Replacement Squadron means that 60% of all Navy fighter jets will be based in Lemoore, Ashliman noted.

Although seven FA-18C Super Hornet squadrons will be replaced by F-35C squadrons, there will still be 10 squadrons of Super Hornets and a Fleet Replacement Squadron for the Super Hornet jets, Ashliman said.

El Centro will still serve an important role in training, he said.

The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6104, lgriswold@fresnobee.com or @fb_LewGriswold on Twitter.

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