Report to reveal Joint Strike Fighter's effect on Beaufort

The new year is likely to provide a glimpse into the future of Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort.

Having gathered public comment during meetings last February, the Marine Corps is expected to release the first draft of its environmental impact statement in April about the arrival and operation of the Joint Strike Fighter at the air station, said Capt. Josiah Nicely, air station spokesman.

In addition to examining the jet's effects on noise and the base's compatible-use zone, the report will detail how the Corps expects to allocate more than a dozen JSF squadrons between MCAS Beaufort and MCAS Cherry Point in North Carolina. The 13 squadrons include 10 operational squadrons, one reserve squadron and two training squadrons, according to the Corps.

MCAS Beaufort could receive all of the training squadrons and none of the operational squadrons, or a combination of the two, according to a notice published in the Federal Register.

The air station now houses seven operational F/A-18 Hornet squadrons.

"The draft environmental impact statement will give the first detailed look at important issues surrounding the possible arrival of the Joint Strike Fighter to MCAS Beaufort," Nicely said. The air station "is excited to be moving forward toward this next generation of aviation that the JSF represents."

Brad Samuel, chairman of the Beaufort Regional Chamber of Commerce's Military Enhancement Committee, said the draft's release is a pivotal moment in the base's history.

"The draft will have everything in it and is, in a lot of ways, more important than the final report," Samuel said. "For the final report, they'll just take whatever they've done in the draft and just fine-tune it. The draft is very important, and we're all looking forward to it.

"As far as what the report says, we'd love to keep what we have now, the same number of jets and the same size mission. Ultimately, we want all of our bases to remain strong. We want whatever they want."

Once the report is released, a 45-day public comment period will begin and a final environmental impact statement is expected to be released next fall, according to the Corps.

Beaufort Mayor Billy Keyserling said he thinks the report will lead to a fuller understanding of the impact the next-generation fighter jet will have on life in the Lowcountry.

"I'll be interested to read this report and learn about the questions that were raised ... and hope those issues will be addressed," Keyserling said.

The jets, which cost $80 million to $90 million each, will replace all of the Navy and Marine Corps' F-18s, the average age of which is about 18 years. The Navy and Marine Corps are scheduled to receive 680 jets. The JSF is likely to arrive in Beaufort in 2012 or 2013, according to the Corps.