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Will F-35 Fighters Be Based In Lemoore? We’ll Find Out In January

F-35C lands on a carrier

Will the West Coast base for the Navy’s version of the Joint Strike fighter planes be located in Lemoore or alternately in El Centro near San Diego? San Diego is, after all, the home base for the Pacific fleet.

There is one local guy who knows – but he is not saying. That’s NAS Lemoore base commander Capt Eric Venema who advises he got a peek at the draft environmental impact statement the other day that is being circulated through command channels that offers the Navy’s preferred location.

Drum roll please. Like I said he’s not saying.

“The draft document should be out in January”says Venema,followed by a 45 day comment period. A final Record of Decision is not expected until December 2013. The environmental study started in January 2011.

The plan calls for a one to one replacement of the jets used currently on aircraft carriers with the latest jets that use stealth technology.

The new planes being made by Lockheed Martin would replace an aging fleet of carrier-based F-18 Hornets which the Navy eventually plans to phase out.  The US military expects to buy 2,443 aircraft to provide the bulk of its tactical airpower for the Air Force, Marines and Navy in coming decades with the Navy last in line. The Navy’s version is called the F-35C.

Asked by phone if he thinks the Navy will pick Lemoore over El Centro, former Kings County supervisor Tony Oliveira quipped “I couldn’t hear you, I had a jet in my ear” since the Oliveira homestead is close to the base flight path just west of Lemoore.

“I do understand they have made the choice to come to Lemoore.We better hopes so.This is a $1 billion decision.”

A 2008 economic assessment study found the base contributed $161 million in labor income annually to the local economy and counting the spinoffs – has a total economic impact of just under $1 billion every year. The total population associated with the local base that straddles Kings and Fresno Counties is around 44,000 says the study.

Oliveira says if the Navy selects El Centro that would be “pretty much the end of the base” since the squadrons who fly the upgraded planes are the same people with new hardware. Most of the Kings County’s personnel and support services would transfer to southern California. El Centro boosters are eager as well.

The Navy established the Kings County base in 1961, the newest West Coast base.NAS Lemoore now hosts the Navy’s entire west coast fighter/attack capability.

“If the Navy doesn’t chose Kings County I would hate to be at the next BRAC congressional hearing.” suggest Oliveira.

El Centro might be closer to San Diego,perhaps a few more days of sunshine, but the Lemoore location has plenty going for it despite the fact the sea is nowhere in site.

Unlike almost every Navy base in coastal areas this base is not threatened by rapid urban growth. Surrounded by thousands of acres of open farmland there is little to impede the jets coming and goings.If the ocean is not next door – it is a short jaunt at 1500mph as is the open desert for training purposes.

To keep urban users away the base with local jurisdictions went through a joint land use study and agreement to keep the flight path clear in the future and minimize concerns that the new jets will be a little noisier.

Even now,Venema says they are looking to cut water use on their land considering installing solar power arrays on some of the land that would both generate green energy, cut water use while minimizing potential bird strikes. The bird issue is a big one with the idea to not offer a habitat conducive to bird prey like rodents.Right now most of the protective land around the base is farmed.But there is a water shortage.

Add all this up and the Navy appears to be making a bet on NAS Lemoore having recently transferred an East Coast squadron here and  in the process of transferring two more, each a 500 person move. Capt. Venema says all these units will be in place by 2014. A new search and rescue helicopter squadron has come to the base for off- coast rescue if need be. Clearly the US Navy is invested here.

The Kings County base is a training site as well as base for the planes ,the pilots and families when they are not at sea as they are right now – on duty in the waters of the Middle East and around the world.

Navy Times Weighs In

There is some optimism that this Central Valley base will be selected as the Navy has spent so much time and money on this location establishing it as their key West Coast base.

Here the Navy Times reports the beginning of the 2 year study in January 2011 offering what they think will happen.
”The likely home for seven active-duty F-35C joint strike fighter squadrons and a training squadron will be Naval Air Station Lemoore, in California’s Central Valley, home of Pacific Fleet’s F/A-18 Hornets and Super Hornets. But the Navy also is weighing basing the squadrons at El Centro Naval Air Facility, a desert airbase two hours east of San Diego that’s the winter home of the Navy’s “Blue Angels” flight demonstration team.
The Navy plans to begin in 2015 the 10-year process of transitioning from its existing 100 F/A-18 Hornets in the Pacific Fleet to 109 F-35Cs. The service also wants to establish the training squadron, known as the fleet replacement squadron, in 2017 and co-locate it with other fleet squadrons.
“In order to maximize efficiency of support facilities, simulation devices and on-site support personnel, the Navy intends to base all of its West Coast F-35C aircraft at one location,” Navy officials said in a Jan. 27 announcement of plans for to complete an environmental impact statement.
The Navy narrowed down its list of potential home bases from 134 military air facilities in the continental U.S. and found that Lemoore and El Centro “best meet Navy F-35C requirements.”
Some Doubts
Before we get too confident – consider the US Navy may or may not be fully committed to the F-35C. A recent article quoted Admiral Jonathan Greenert’s opinion that the high cost of stealth technology, the budget crisis in Washington and the success of unmanned aircraft in a changing military landscape could spell a change in attitude on investing in the planned purchase of 480 F-35Cs.  100 of those planes would be stationed here.
“In his column, Adm. Greenert does not mention the fighter by name, but he does note the limits of stealth technology. And the Navy is buying only one stealth aircraft — the F-35.”

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