Lightning fighter jets get new home at Nellis

The skies over Las Vegas will fill with Lightning next year, as the military's next-generation fighter jet lands at its new home at Nellis Air Force Base.

The Air Force announced plans on Tuesday to establish a test and training center at Nellis for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, also known as the Lightning II.

The single-seat fighter is being developed and manufactured now as an eventual replacement for the F-16 Fighting Falcon and A-10 Thunderbolt attack jets.

The first F-35 is expected to arrive at Nellis in 2012. A total of 36 of the aircraft are slated to be based there through 2020.

The Air Force's decision came after an environmental review of the proposal. It will mean thousands of additional flights at Nellis over the next decade.

"No other base, or combination of bases, offers the specific physical or organizational infrastructure necessary to support" F-35 testing and training, the Air Force review concluded.

Nellis and the 2.9 million-acre Nevada Test and Training Range north of Las Vegas already serve as the proving ground for the F-22 Raptor and other combat aircraft.

The so-called "beddown" of the F-35 is expected to be more than twice the size of the F-22 deployment at Nellis.

The new aircraft will increase flights at the base and operations at the test range by about 20 percent.

During its environmental review, the Air Force received a handful of noise concerns, including several from residents of Alamo worried about the impact of sonic booms on their Lincoln County community.

The Lightning is expected to bring 412 additional personnel to the base and require the construction of new buildings and the renovation or demolition of existing ones.

Economic analyst Jeremy Aguero called 400 new jobs "relatively modest," but he said the overall impact of Nellis on the community is "by no means modest."

The decision to bring the F-35 here for testing and training is important, because it speaks to the base's continued relevance, he said. No one is talking about closing Nellis, which employs about 9,000 military personnel.

"The number of people who come in and out of that facility is substantial," said Aguero, who is a partner with the local economic research firm Applied Analysis. "The people may work within the gate, but the fact is they spend their money and in some cases they live outside the gate."

Late last year, Congress approved $51.7 million for construction of a maintenance hangar and various flight test facilities to support the F-35 at Nellis.

The single-engine attack jet will be able to fly at 1½ times the speed of sound and evade detection with stealth technology that will reduce its radar signature.

Advanced electronics will allow the pilot to detect enemy threats at substantially greater distances and strike targets on the ground and in the air using precision munitions fired from an internal weapons bay on the belly of the aircraft.

The Lightning also comes armed with a 25-mm cannon for use on enemy aircraft and armored vehicles.

The Navy and Marine Corps will get versions of the F-35 that can be based on aircraft carriers and will be able to take off on short runways and land vertically.

The fighter jet is meant to complement the larger, twin-engine F-22.

Development of the Joint Strike Fighter is considered the most expensive defense acquisition program in U.S. history. The overall cost for 2,400 aircraft for the Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps has jumped from $233 billion to $385 billion.

Last week, the Pentagon told the Senate Armed Services Committee that defense contractor Lockheed Martin needs another $760 million to complete the first 28 F-35s. The military's first F-35 Lightning II went into service on Thursday at Eglin Air Force in Florida.

Contact reporter Henry Brean at or 702-383-0350.