F‑35 Buildup Continues in Alaska Despite Coronavirus Challenges

 In Afghanistan, COVID-19, Air, Forces & Capabilities

The deploy­ment of F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter jets to Eielson Air Force Base (AFB) in Alaska has con­tin­ued this year despite chal­lenges from the novel coro­n­avirus. The base’s new com­man­der has also begun to trans­form the cul­ture of Eiselson, which is locat­ed twenty-six miles south­east of Fairbanks, from one that has pri­or­i­tized train­ing to one that is more focused on readi­ness to deploy units to combat on short notice.

Col. David Berkland took over Eielson in August to assume com­mand of the 354th Fighter Wing after serv­ing a tour at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan. Part of his job is ready­ing the base for the thou­sands of Airmen who will be coming as part of the deploy­ment of the fifty-four F‑35 fight­er jets that began to arrive in April and will con­tin­ue to arrive through 2022.

The deploy­ment of the Joint Strike Fighter jet will come with an esti­mat­ed 3,500 per­son­nel includ­ing the Airmen as well as their fam­i­lies and civil­ian per­son­nel. The number of mil­i­tary per­son­nel at the AFB base will increase by nearly 50%, which is sig­nif­i­cant given that the base was once on the brink of clo­sure.

“By the end of this, we’ll have 54 F‑35s on the ramp,” Berkland told Alaska Public Media earlier this month. “We’re expect­ing some­where around 3,500 per­son­nel, and that includes family mem­bers — spous­es, kids — as well as civil­ians and con­trac­tors.”

The first two F‑35As arrived in April while a third arrived in May.

“I saw the first two jets land in April and it felt like a once in a life­time expe­ri­ence that I was hon­ored and excit­ed to be part of,” Airman 1st Class Jeremiah Jordheim, a 356th Aircraft Maintenance Unit assis­tant ded­i­cat­ed crew chief, said in June when three addi­tion­al F‑35As arrived at the base. “Seeing the 356th Fighter Squadron stand up is a great oppor­tu­ni­ty and it’s always a thrill to see that Alaska tail come in.”

To date a total of nine have arrived at the base — despite Pentagon-imposed coro­n­avirus pre­cau­tions that had halted the move­ment of per­son­nel or mate­r­i­al ear­li­er this year. That includ­ed the stealth jet fight­ers, which are being built at Lockheed Martin’s fac­to­ry in Fort Worth, Texas.

“That has been lifted,” Berkland added. “We have resumed flow­ing-in people and equip­ment, to include the air­craft coming off the line at Fort Worth. So, we’re on track.”

It was only a year ago when the Air Force re-estab­lished the 356th Fighter Squadron at Eielson, assigned the 354th Fighter Wing, where the F‑35A could oper­ate along­side Alaska-based F-22 Raptors in inter­cept­ing Russian bombers and other war­planes that all too fre­quent­ly probe American defens­es.

The 356th Fighter Squadron flew P-51s during World War II and F‑100, F‑4 and A‑7 fight­ers during the Vietnam War and the Cold War. The squadron deployed A‑10 attack planes for the Gulf War in 1991 but fell victim to budget cuts in 1992.

The deci­sion to send the group of F‑35s to Eielson was part of a clear strategic shift toward both the Pacific and the Arctic region. The AFB is just 110 miles south of the Arctic Circle. The 2020 Arctic Strategy places an addi­tion­al pre­mi­um upon readi­ness for large-scale Arctic war­fare in recog­ni­tion of the fast-increas­ing strate­gic and mil­i­tary sig­nif­i­cance of the region. 

The arrival of the fifth-gen­er­a­tion stealth fight­er jet is sig­nif­i­cant in what it means for the base. As noted this will begin a shift from one ded­i­cat­ed mainly to train­ing to one more ori­ent­ed toward deploy­ment for combat.

“Hey, we are no longer a gar­ri­son men­tal­i­ty,” said Berkland. “We are no longer a train­ing wing — we are a combat wing, with a warfight­ing men­tal­i­ty. And that’s what we mes­sage to the airmen.”

Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer who has con­tributed to more than four dozen mag­a­zines, news­pa­pers and web­sites. He is the author of sev­er­al books on mil­i­tary head­gear includ­ing A Gallery of Military Headdress, which is avail­able on Amazon.com.

Image: Reuters

National Interest source|articles

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