First F-35 could arrive by May 2012
If all goes according to the "preferred option" and current time line, the first F-35 airplane could be on the flight line at Marine Corps Air Station Yuma by May 2012.
That time line is critical for the Marine Corps, which intends to replace the aging Harrier with the new fighter jet now under development.
"There's a pressing need," Lt. Col. Geoffrey Olander, of the joint strike fighter site activation task force at MCAS Yuma, told a gathering of about 50 Yuma-area residents during the inaugural meeting Tuesday evening of the Citizens Action Committee.
"We need to stay on our timeline," he said. "The Harriers are running out of their service life."
The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter will be made in three versions for use by the Marine Corps, the U.S. Air Force and the U.S. Navy as well as the nation's allied defense forces worldwide. The Marines will get the "B" version with short vertical take off and landing capability.
The time line calls for the draft of the Environmental Impact Statement to be released to the public this May with public hearings to be held in June, Olander said. December is the target date for the record of decision.
Nothing can be finalized until the ROD, Olander said. But he did note that the preferred option in the EIS calls for up to 11 squadrons and an operational testing and evaluation squadron to be located on the West Coast, with MCAS Yuma to receive up to five squadrons plus the OT&E squadron. Each squadron is expected to have up to 16 planes.
"The Marines will lead the way and Yuma will lead the Marines," he said. "The first squadron would stand up in Yuma."
There would be a transition period as the F-35 replaces the Harrier over time.
Olander emphasized that the decision by the Marines will be independent of the other branches, referring to the state's promotion of the Air Force bases in Phoenix and Tucson as possible sites for the F-35.
He also said MCAS Yuma has been designated to temporarily have a training squadron as a contingency plan if Eglin Air Force Base in Florida is rejected as the F-35 training center. A couple of lawsuits have been filed against Eglin but at the moment the Florida base is on track to start receiving the aircraft this year, he added.
Accommodating the F-35 at MCAS Yuma will require an investment of "hundreds of millions of dollars in infrastructure" at the air station, Olander said. That would include the construction of new state-of-the-art hangers with greater security to protect the technology in the F-35.
One reason Yuma is at the leading edge, he said, is because the air station is a training base and as such will need to support the F-35 for transient squadrons even if the aircraft weren't based here.
Also, he said, city and county planners have done a good job of protecting noise contours around MCAS Yuma. He noted that the F-35 likely will be a little noisier than the Harrier, but will be flown differently and at higher altitude so he doesn't anticipate the noise to be an issue for the community.
Another plus, he said, is the tradition of community support for the military.
A show of that support will be critical as plans for the F-35 move forward, said Julie Engel, president and CEO of Greater Yuma Economic Development Corporation. The Citizens Action Committee is being formed to organize that support
"The more people who support it the better message we send to the Department of Defense and the contractors."
Having the F-35 come to Yuma will mean construction jobs and the potential for attracting military contractors to support the aircraft, she said. "The impact on Yuma will be profound."
And if people have issues, Engel urged them to speak up so their concerns can be addressed.
For more information about the committee, call GYEDC at 782-7774.
Joyce Lobeck can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 539-6853.