PHOENIX — The Air Force said Thursday it will assign three additional F-35 squadrons to Luke Air Force Base, bolstering the future of the facility 15 miles west of Phoenix as the military’s current fleet of F-16s is retired.
The announcement means six squadrons will be assigned to the base for pilot training with 144 aircraft.
Arizona Sens. John McCain and Jeff Flake hailed the decision, calling it great news for the state and cities west of Phoenix. Gov. Jan Brewer was set to discuss the decision at the base later in the day.
“It also means that Luke Air Force Base will continue to serve as the premier pilot training facility in the world,” McCain said in a statement that also cited its proximity to the Barry M. Goldwater military training range and the support of state and nearby residents for the success of the base.
The new F-35s are set to begin arriving at the base in 2014.
Luke serves as the world’s largest training base for the aging F-16 jet and has more than 130 of the aircraft. An F-16 crashed west of the base on Wednesday after its two pilots parachuted to safety. The cause of the crash hasn’t been released.
McCain called it a “reminder of the important and dangerous work our airmen do every day at Luke and we are all deeply thankful that no one was hurt.”
Officials in Glendale, which includes the base, worried that Luke would be left without a mission before it was designated last year as an F-35 training base. The Air Force intends to keep training F-16 pilots at Luke until at least 2023.
The city has said the base generates about $2 billion in yearly revenue statewide.
The F-35 program has been troubled by development snags, production delays and soaring costs. McCain said Thursday he remained cautiously optimistic about the health of the Pentagon’s most expensive weapons program.
Three versions of the plane are set to be built for the Air Force, Marines and Navy, at up to $169 million each. The Pentagon wants to buy more than 2,400 of the stealthy, single-engine fighters.
The jets are noisier than F-16s, leading to worries in communities where the military is considering basing the aircraft. The same concerns dogged the jet when the Air Force was considering basing it at Luke, but it ultimately decided to move forward because of the good flying weather and proximity to the training range.
“I am glad to see the Air Force taking advantage of the unique attributes our state has to offer, making good use of the climate and environment to better enhance the defense of the nation,” Flake said in a statement.