As the Navy works to phase out its aging F/A-18C Hornets, an East Coast squadron has arrived at Naval Air Station Lemoore to learn to fly newer F/A-18E/F Super Hornets.

Strike Fighter Squadron VFA-86 quietly relocated from Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort, N.C. in June after the Navy granted a “categorical exclusion” from environmental assessment late last year.

The move is in keeping with the Navy’s 60-40 plan, which will distribute 60 percent of Navy assets to its Pacific Fleet and 40 percent to its Atlantic Fleet.

“It’s all part of the 60-40 split,” said NASL spokeswoman Melinda Larson. “This squadron got here ahead of the others because it didn’t need an environmental assessment.”

Larson called the move a “multimillion-dollar loss” for the East Coast base. One strike-fighter squadron equates to about $12.5 million in salaries alone.

The 10-plane squadron brings more than 200 officers and enlisted sailors and their dependents to Lemoore — a total increase of about 500 residents. Larson said the squadron should be fully trained in the Super Hornet by December.

Late last month, the Navy released a draft environmental assessment to realign strike-fighter assets in Lemoore. The assessment will determine the effects of bringing two additional 12-plane Super Hornet squadrons from the East Coast and transitioning up to five NASL squadrons from the older F/A-18C Hornets to the newer Super Hornet aircraft.

The proposed action, set to take place between 2012 and 2015, would mean a net increase of about 182 personnel and modifications to three hangars to accommodate 26 Super Hornet aircraft. Larson said realignment would add about $9.1 million in salaries, plus an additional $10 million in construction spending.

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Plans to simultaneously eliminate the older F/A-18C from the base’s fleet replacement squadron would result in an overall reduction in aircraft at NASL, from 238 to 234.

According to the draft environmental assessment, “The in-place transitions would be a temporary measure to remain operationally efficient until these 10-plane squadrons are eventually transitioned into the F-35C JSF in the 2015-2025 time frame.”

Larson said the new squadrons won’t have any bearing on whether the Navy chooses NASL as its West Coast home base for the new F-35C Joint Strike Fighter aircraft. An Environmental Impact Statement set for completion next year will determine whether Lemoore or Naval Air Facility El Centro.

If selected, the Navy would begin a one-for-one replacement of 109 existing aircraft with 100 F-35C aircraft starting in 2015.

Besides reinforcing NASL’s role as the Navy’s West Coast Master Jet Base, continued growth of the base means more business in the surrounding communities.

“The more that it happens, the better it is — not just for Lemoore — but for Kings, Tulare and Fresno counties,” said Lemoore Chamber of Commerce CEO Maureen Azevedo.

Azevedo said she recently spoke with a Navy wife who was relocating to Lemoore and wanted to know where the best off-base shopping was.

The reporter can be reached at 583-2458 or meiman@HanfordSentinel.com.

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