Navy Plans to Deactivate F-35s at Eglin Air Force Base

Two Navy F-35Cs fly at the left wing observation position during a training mission near Eglin Air Force Base, Fla. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Brian Kelly)
Two Navy F-35Cs fly at the left wing observation position during a training mission near Eglin Air Force Base, Fla. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Brian Kelly)

The U.S. Navy is set to deactivate its F-35 Lightning II squadron at Eglin Air Force Base, Florida, and plans to move operations to Naval Air Station Lemoore, centralizing its Joint Strike Fighter operations out west.

Strike Fighter Squadron 101 (VFA-101), known as the Grim Reapers, will move to the California naval base because it is "the center of the universe for the F-35C," as current and future operational squadrons are set to be based out of Lemoore, said Cmdr. Ron Flanders, spokesman for Naval Air Forces.

"The Navy is moving forward with the deactivation of VFA-101 at Eglin Air Force Base next year, and the re-alignment of F-35C assets into strike fighter squadrons to support VX-9 Detachment Edwards Air Force Base, Naval Aviation Warfare Development Center (NAWDC) at Naval Air Station Fallon, Nevada, and maintain Fleet Replacement Squadron (FRS) production at VFA-125, while transitioning Navy and Marine Corps F/A-18 Hornet squadrons to the F-35C Lightning II," Flanders said in a statement Tuesday. Defense News first reported the move on Dec. 7.

NAS Lemoore is home to Strike Fighter Squadron 125, a replacement squadron, as well as Strike Fighter Squadron 147 (VFA-147). VFA-147 is slated to become the Navy's first operational F-35C squadron. The service hopes to declare the F-35C initial operating capability ready in February, with VFA-147's first deployment scheduled aboard the USS Carl Vinson in 2021.

Flanders said the Grim Reapers "will not be disestablished," the squadron will just be placed in a reserve capacity until the transition is complete.

For some time, Eglin Air Force Base had been expecting that the Navy -- like the Marine Corps -- would leave the base, officials previously told Military.com.

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The Air Force originally envisioned the base with five planned squadrons, including three Air Force, one Marine Corps and one Navy squadron. The Marine Corps officially activated its F-35B at Eglin in 2012, but later moved its pilot training course to Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort, South Carolina, in 2015.

The Air Force has been weighing the addition of another F-35 stealth fighter squadron at Eglin, possibly as soon as 2020.

The plus-up of the fifth-gen fighters would give additional resources to the busiest Air Force F-35 training wing, providing pilots enhanced equipment currently lacking in the pipeline, according to Col. Paul Moga, commander of the fighter wing.

Last week, officials announced plans to refurbish Tyndall Air Force Base, Florida, in hopes of stationing three squadron of F-35s at the base. If Congress approves the decision and supplemental funding is allocated, the F-35 could be based at Tyndall beginning in 2023.

Whether the decision to move more F-35s to Tyndall would end up shifting the Eglin boost is too soon to tell, an Air Force official told Military.com on Dec. 7.

-- Oriana Pawlyk can be reached at oriana.pawlyk@military.com. Follow her on Twitter at @Oriana0214.

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