Base on track for new Navy fighters

LEMOORE, Calif. — A Central California Navy base is a signature away from becoming home to a new squadron of fighter jets.

A final environmental impact statement released Thursday named Lemoore Naval Air Station the preferred alternative to serve as the West Coast base for the F-35C Joint Strike Fighter jet. Lemoore, which is located 45 miles south of Fresno, was competing against El Centro Naval Air Facility in the Imperial Valley.

The Fresno Bee reports that Navy Secretary Ray Mabus is expected to give his final approval to Lemoore by mid-June.

“We are extremely excited for the installation and our surrounding communities,” base commander Capt. Monty Ashliman told the newspaper.

The first F-35C fighter jets could arrive in August 2016, and by 2028, Lemoore could be home to 70 jets in addition to 30 others to make up a replacement squadron for training pilots and maintenance crews. The fighter jets will require up to 600 more uniformed personnel.

The base has been a historical center for the Navy’s West Coast fighter jet operations. The new jets will join the FA-18C Super Hornets squad at the base. Ashliman told the newspaper that, with the addition, 60 percent of the Navy’s fighter jets will be based in Lemoore.

Officials said the new squadron will give the region an economic boost.

“It will essentially solidify the Navy presence in Kings County for decades to come,” said John Lehn, president of the Kings County Economic Development Corporation.

The base employs 7,900 people from the aircraft hangars to the base hospital. Those employees live in surrounding communities and pump $1 billion annually into the economy, officials said.

The squadron will need new buildings for pilot training, administration, flight simulators and supplies.

“This will create jobs,” county Supervisor Doug Verboon said. “There’s no telling where we can go from here.”

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