EGLIN AIR FORCE BASE, Fla. — The push to make President Donald Trump’s dreams of a U.S-Mexico border wall a reality has called a handful of military construction projects into question, but at least one of the two projects at Eglin Air Force Base centered around F-35 training has been cleared for takeoff.
The Air Force on Tuesday allocated funding for Eglin to build a new dormitory for students learning to maintain the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, Defense News learned during a Feb. 26 trip to the base.
But one other construction project remains unfunded — an annex for its Academic Training Center, which will contain new maintenance training equipment to help students learn how to support the jet.
“Wing leaders were initially notified of the authority to award [the dormitory contract] after close of business Monday evening, and the project is funded for approximately $29 million,” said Lena Lopez, spokeswoman for the 33rd Fighter Wing.
Meanwhile, the award for the Academic Training Center is still in source selection, with a contract slated for award in mid-April, Lopez said.
However, it’s possible that instead of awarding that contract, the funding is routed to the border wall project. The new training center would cost about $35 million, according to the Tampa Bay Times, which was the first to report on the risk to Eglin’s construction efforts.
All F-35 maintainers, regardless of they service from whence they hail, move through Eglin’s Academic Training Center. The facility also trains maintainers from foreign militaries purchasing the F-35, with more than 1,000 international students graduating from the facility since it was stood up in 2013.
But as the production of the Joint Strike Fighter ramps up, more capacity is needed at Eglin to push additional maintainers through the training process.
Having another dormitory, which will house 280 students, would help alleviate some of the existing pressures on base housing, said John Winkler, a 33rd Fighter Wing liaison. Currently, the base has three dorms on campus, but each suite — built for two people to share, with separate rooms for each — have been set up to accommodate four students due to the demand for more maintainers.
Getting funding to expand the training center is especially important for international students, who cannot practice on the American F-35s stationed at Eglin and therefore must rely on simulators. Eventually, those foreign maintainers move onto Luke Air Force Base, Arizona, where international F-35 pilots train to fly their own versions of the jet and maintainers can get more hands-on experience repairing the plane.
Trump declared a national emergency Feb. 15 and called for the reallocation of $3.6 billion from the Defense Department’s military construction account and $2.5 billion in counternarcotics funds for border wall construction.
During a news conference earlier this month, the president defended the decision to pull money from the military construction budget, saying he had discussed the matter with certain generals — Trump did not specify which ones — and that some of the projects set to get funds “didn’t sound too important to me.”
As Eglin awaits to see whether funding for the center will be released, Congress is locked in a debate on whether to block the border emergency declaration and stem the flow of military construction funds to build the wall. On Tuesday, the House passed a resolution that counters the declaration, with the Senate set to bring up the resolution over the coming days.
Eglin isn’t the only F-35 base that stands to lose funding for F-35 training installations.
Luke AFB, which trains U.S. Air Force pilots and international pilots, has $40 million worth of projects still waiting for approved funding, reports The Arizona Republic. Those funds would pay for a new hangar and an operations facility needed to support a sixth squadron.
Pentagon officials have said that programs slated to start late in the fiscal year are the most likely to be delayed.
Valerie Insinna is Defense News' air warfare reporter. She previously worked the Navy/congressional beats for Defense Daily, which followed almost three years as a staff writer for National Defense Magazine. Prior to that, she worked as an editorial assistant for the Tokyo Shimbun’s Washington bureau.