Naval Air Station Joint Reserve Base Fort Worth has been selected by the Air Force to land a squadron of F-35 Lightning II fighter jets.
The base was picked partially because of its location next to the Lockheed Martin plant where the stealth fighter is being built, and the F-35s are expected to begin arriving in the mid-2020s. The Air Force’s 301st Fighter Wing, which currently flies F-16s and is housed at the Naval Air Station, is expected to be assigned 18 jets.
Thursday’s announcement from the Air Force named the joint reserve base as its preferred location for the first Reserve-led F-35 base. A final decision will probably come next year after completion of an environmental impact analysis, which is underway, an Air Force spokeswoman said. In deciding where to place the F-35s, the Air Force also looks at a base’s mission, its capacity and costs.
“We selected the Air Force Reserve unit in Fort Worth because it is the location that meets all of the necessary training requirements at the lowest cost,” Deborah Lee James, secretary of the Air Force, said in a statement. “Additionally, the location will provide mission synergy and access to an experienced workforce for recruiting as a result of its proximity to the F-35 manufacturing plant.”
Congressional, state and local leaders who lobbied to have F-35s based in Fort Worth, praised the decision.
“The base is the ideal location because of our outstanding Airmen, the base’s superior facilities, and the valuable air space that are essential for the aircraft,” said U.S. Rep. Kay Granger, R-Fort Worth, chairwoman of the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee.
“This base has always played a critical role in providing for our national security and the Air Force’s major announcement today again highlights the significance of our base,” Granger said. She said the first aircraft are expected to arrive in 2025, with additional F-35s planned in 2026 and 2035.
Mayor Betsy Price said the announcement is “a great win” for Fort Worth and the base that will encourage partnerships to operate the “world-class program for another 40 years.”
“We are very excited about this as this is a great win for the NASJRB, the U.S. Air Force and Lockheed Martin,” Price said.
“Not only does this extension afford the fighter legacy to thrive for decades to come, but with the newfound commitment, effectively strengthens the long-standing relationships with our federal partners as they seek to fulfill the mission for the U.S. Air Force and our thriving defense industry,” she said.
While it is unlikely that Fort Worth will not get the squadron, the Air Force said Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Arizona, Homestead Air Reserve Base in Florida and Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri are being considered as reasonable alternatives for final basing and are undergoing environmental analysis.
Three active-duty locations have been identified for F-35 bases — Hill Air Force Base in Utah, Eielson Air Force Base in Alaska and Royal Air Force Lakenheath in the United Kingdom — as well as one Air National Guard site in Burlington, Vt.
Texas Republican Sen. Ted Cruz said the Fort Worth reserve base was chosen after a “highly competitive process.”
“I am greatly pleased that the Air Force recognized what we in Texas already knew: that NASJRB Fort Worth and the local community offer exceptional value to the United States Air Force,” Cruz said.
Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican, said the 301st Fighter Wing is the “ideal location” for the F-35. He said Texas is already home to the Air Force’s Advanced Instrument Course and undergraduate and advanced flight schools for all three military branches.
“I am pleased that the greatest military aviation department in the world has chosen Fort Worth as the location for its newest squadron,” Abbott said.
The Air Force used the announcement to express its continued support for the F-35 program. The jet fighter has been under attack by President-elect Donald Trump, who has questioned its capabilities and cost, which at nearly $400 billion is the most expensive weapon system in Pentagon history. But the Air Force, which is slated to buy 1,763 planes, said the jet fighter is even better than advertised.
“In the hands of our Airmen, the F-35 will be the most lethal, survivable and adaptable aircraft in our inventory for decades to come,” Air Force Chief of Staff David L. Goldfein said in a statement. “No matter how you slice it, the F-35’s stealth characteristics, maneuverability, interoperability and its ability to make other aircraft better through sensor fusion make it unmatched by any adversary.”
Granger also defended the F-35.
“I’ve been a staunch advocate for the program since the original contract was awarded in 2001 and am intimately familiar with its capabilities. The F-35 will enable our airmen to succeed against significant adversaries in high-threat environments,” she said.
Lockheed Martin has been working to drive down the cost of the F-35 to about $85 million within the 2019-20 time frame. The plant, which employs 14,000 workers in Fort Worth, has about 8,800 working on the F-35. Lockheed has said it plans to hire 1,000 more workers as production ramps up.
“We’re so proud that the F-35 is going to be based right here in Fort Worth. We’re honored to share the runway that Air Force pilots will be using with the new squadron at the base,” Lockheed spokesman Ken Ross said. He said the selection shows the importance of the base to national security.
U.S. Rep. Marc Veasey, D-Fort Worth, described Fort Worth’s selection as a “major milestone.”
“Fort Worth’s robust defense industry and the proximity and strength of its reserve Air Force base makes it an ideal cost-saving home for the F-35 Lightning II and ensures that our airmen are trained on the latest technology they need to defeat our toughest adversaries,” Veasey said.
Staff writer Sandra Baker contributed to this report, which includes material from the Star-Telegram archives.