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Luke, not Tucson, gaining F-35 force

WASHINGTON – The Pentagon said Wednesday it will house three squadrons of F-35 jet fighters at Luke Air Force Base, a decision that could mean millions in construction and potentially thousands of jobs near the Glendale facility.

Luke was one of four sites in the running – with Tucson, New Mexico and Idaho – to be home to pilot training for the F-35, a fifth-generation fighter expected to be the Air Force’s “premier strike aircraft through the first half of the 21st century.”

The Air Force announced Wednesday that Luke will get three fighter squadrons, a total of 72 aircraft, as soon as late next year. The base could get as many as three additional squadrons, as F-16s currently housed at Luke are retired.

Arizona Sens. John McCain and Jon Kyl said Wednesday was a “proud day for the state of Arizona.”

“We welcome the secretary of Air Force’s commitment that, in addition to the three F-35 training squadrons, the Air Force will maintain both U.S. and foreign F-16 pilot training at Luke AFB through 2023,” they said in a joint statement shortly after the announcement.

Tucson officials said they were not surprised by the announcement and still hope to land F-35 squadrons in the future at an Air National Guard facility at Tucson International Airport.

“Luke has been the military’s preferred choice for the first 72 aircraft since 2010,” Tucson Mayor Jonathan Rothschild said through an aide. “It is our understanding that decisions on the next phase won’t happen until December 2014. At that time we expect that Tucson will receive consideration as a secondary location.”

The decision caps a nearly three-year process that included environmental impact studies on air quality, noise, land use and socioeconomic issues on the locations in contention.

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The Glendale base has been the “preferred location” for two years and the Pentagon, in a June environmental report, again called Luke its top choice. Its assets include facility and ramp capacity, range access, weather and the capacity for future growth, the Air Force said Wednesday.

“This is a great day for Luke,” said Brig. Gen. J.D. Harris, commander of the Luke-based 56th Fighter Wing, in a press release. “Our selection for F-35 training ensures the long-term viability of our mission of training the world’s greatest fighter pilots, which we’ve been doing at Luke for seven decades.”

Rep. Trent Franks, R-Glendale, said he looked forward to welcoming the “future of the U.S. Air Force” to the district.

“The Air Force’s decision confirms what those of us who have had the honor of living as neighbors to Luke have long known: The men and women serving at Luke Air Force Base are consistently the best of the best at what they do,” Franks said in a prepared statement.

The fighters are expected to arrive at Luke between late 2013 and mid-2014, the Air Force said, but construction on the base to prepare for them should start “almost immediately.”

The mission is expected to bring an economic boost to the Valley as the government invests up to $125 million on construction-related projects, according to Luke Forward, an organization that promotes the base. It said the F-35′s arrival is estimated to create nearly 3,000 construction jobs.

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Lockheed Martin

A pilot takes the F-35 Lightning II joint strike fighter up for its first night flight near Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., in January. The Pentagon announced Wednesday that Luke Air Force Base will be home to pilot training for the next-generation fighter.