F‑35 Buildup Continues in Alaska Despite Coronavirus Challenges
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.