ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. -- Holloman Air Force Base near Alamogordo is at the top of the Air Force list to get two additional squadrons of F-16 Fighting Falcons -- a move that would nearly double the base's complement of the fourth-generation fighters and add 690 new military personnel.
Air Force officials announced Thursday that Holloman is the "preferred alternative" for relocating about 45 of the F-16s from Hill Air Force Base in Utah, which will be home to the fifth-generation F-35 Lightning II joint strike fighter.
The announcement clears the way for the Air Force to complete the environmental impact process, with a final basing decision to be made in the first half of 2017, according to a joint statement by members of New Mexico's congressional delegation.
The move would create a new training unit that expands the base's F-16 pilot training mission. Holloman currently has 55 F-16s, according to a base spokesman.
Three other Air Force bases -- Luke Air Force Base, Ariz.; the Kelly Field Annex at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland, Texas; and Tucson Air National Guard Base, Ariz. -- had been considered for the additional F-16s.
The new squadrons are expected to arrive at Holloman next summer, according to base officials, and will remain there on an interim basis while the Air Force decides where to put them permanently. The number of planes in a squadron can vary.
"The Air Force continues to evaluate 34 installations to determine candidate bases for the permanent location," a Holloman news release says. "The installations being evaluated for the permanent location have an existing fighter mission, a runway that is greater than or equal to 8,000 feet, and are located in the continental United States." Holloman's runways all exceed 8,000 feet.
Holloman, a 59,639-acre base in south-central New Mexico, currently hosts the 54th Fighter Group's F-16 pilot training program. It has a number of other missions as well, including: training MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper drone pilots and sensor operators; operating the 96th Test Group's high-speed test track; operating the German Air Force Flying Training Center; delivering Air Transportable Clinics and Base Expeditionary Airfield Resources; and providing combat-ready airmen.
Holloman's host unit is Air Combat Command's 49th Wing, commanded by Col. Houston Cantwell.
Thursday's announcement comes as the Air Force struggles to close a growing gap in its availability of fighter pilots. Currently, the Air Force is about 700 fighter pilots short of its required number.
Brig. Gen. Andrew Croft, Air Education and Training Command director of plans, programs, requirements and assessments, told reporters in September that the Air Force is boosting fighter pilot production by 15 to 20 percent by maximizing pilot training at existing facilities. Basing more F-16s at Holloman is part of that transition.
U.S. Rep. Steve Pearce, a Republican whose district includes Alamogordo, cheered the announcement.
"This is the right decision for the future of the Air Force and great news for the Holloman community," Pearce said. "I've flown the skies of New Mexico and around the world for the past 40 years -- nowhere in the world produces better airmen than southern New Mexico. Now the hub for F-16 training, Holloman will continue to provide the military with the superior pilots it needs and wants."
The state's two U.S. senators also praised the move.
"In choosing to relocate these F-16 squadrons to Holloman Air Force Base, the Air Force has made a decision that will enormously benefit our national security, our service members and their families, and New Mexico's economy," Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., said in a statement. "... As a member of the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, I will continue to fight to ensure that New Mexico's first-rate military bases and national labs have the resources they need to keep our nation secure and grow our state's economy."
Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., a member of the Armed Service Committee, said luring the F-16s to Holloman has been an "all hands on deck" effort for the state's congressional delegation.
"Today, the choices were, do we get zero, do we get one squadron or do we get two squadrons? We're getting two, and they have clearly tipped their hat this is the direction they want to go," Heinrich said.
Gov. Susana Martinez said New Mexico "is very proud of our ongoing partnership with the U.S. Air Force. ... Holloman Air Force Base is a strong example of this partnership, and the men, women, and facilities -- along with the entire Alamogordo community -- are well-positioned to be the perfect home for training F-16 pilots, crews and their units."
--Michael Coleman of the Journal Washington bureau contributed to this report.