EGLIN AFB — The 86th Fighter Weapons Squadron, a unit of the 53rd Fighter Wing that evaluates air-to-ground weapons systems, is moving from Eglin Air Force Base to Utah's Hill Air Force Base.
Personnel lost to that move will, however, be more than offset by the likely establishment of a new F-35A stealth fighter jet pilot and maintenance training squadron at Eglin, noted U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., whose district includes Eglin.
The planned move of the 86th Fighter Weapons Squadron actually was announced a couple of years ago, according to Eglin spokesman Andy Bourland, but it garnered fresh attention late last week following a Facebook post by Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, whose congressional district includes Hill.
Bishop's Facebook post, dated late Thursday afternoon, noted that he "was informed by the United States Air Force of the relocation of the 86th Fighter Weapons Squadron from Eglin Air Force Base in Florida to Utah’s Hill Air Force Base. ..."
In further comments on the move, Bishop wrote that the basing change "reemphasizes the strategic importance of Utah’s Hill Air Force Base and the Utah Test and Training Range. ... Utah plays a crucial role in the strategic strength of our nation. It is heartening to know the Air Force shares this confidence.”
According to Bourland, three-quarters of the work of the 86th Fighter Weapons Squadron already is done at Hill, but currently the squadron has only a small detachment actually located at the Utah installation.
Among the missions carried out by the 86th Fighter Weapons Squadron is Combat Hammer, an exercise held twice yearly at Eglin and twice yearly at Hill, taking advantage of the massive test ranges available at both installations.
Combat Hammer, involving a variety of aircraft and munitions, is held to evaluate the reliability and accuracy of precision-guided air-to-ground weapons, as well as their suitability for various missions and their maintenance characteristics.
Gaetz had a mixed reaction to the news that the 86th Fighter Weapons Squadron would be going to Utah, but noted that Eglin will be gaining an F-35 training squadron in the near future.
"We always hate to lose any piece of any mission for any reason," said Gaetz, "but the trend lines in Northwest Florida remain very strong."
"For example," Gaetz said, "the new F-35A training squadron is expected to bring roughly 10 times the uniformed personnel as we will lose from the 86th."
According to the Air Force, moving the 86th Fighter Weapons Squadron will relocate nearly 70 Eglin personnel — 42 airmen, 16 contractor personnel and eight civilians — to Hill. It was not clear Monday exactly when the move from Eglin to Hill will be made.
On the other hand, the Air Force's recent announcement that a new F-35A pilot and maintenance training squadron likely is coming to Eglin could bring as many as 500 new personnel to the base. According to information from Team Eglin Public Affairs, additional F-35As are expected to begin arriving at the base in the fall of 2021, with the new squadron slated to reach full operational capability by the spring of 2023.
Gaetz also noted Monday that Air Force Research Laboratory operations at Eglin also are reason for confidence in the installation's future. The laboratory recently broke ground for a new $75 million Advanced Munitions Technology Complex, designed to reduce the size of munitions without compromising their effects.
"With the Research Lab experiencing historic funding, and potentially even more aircraft on the way, the future for Eglin looks as bright as ever," Gaetz said.