F-35s, F-16 Aggressors, KC-135 Tankers Put on Impressive “Elephant Walk” in Alaska
On the same day that the U.S. Air Force officially stood up a second squadron of F-35 Lightning II stealth fighters at Eielson Air Force Base in Alaska, the station’s resident flying units conducted an impressive “Elephant Walk” to show off its ability to rapidly generate combat airpower. The base’s critical value, especially with regards to the Arctic, a region of growing strategic importance, is something The War Zone has discussed in considerable detail in this previous article.
On December 18, no fewer than 18 F-35As, 12 F-16 Fighting Falcons, and two KC-135 Stratotankers arrived on the base’s flight line and prepared for takeoff, yielding the stunning photos seen in this piece. The Elephant Walk “tested the rapid readiness of every flying unit on Eielson AFB and displayed the airpower of the 354th Fighter Wing and the 168th Wing together,” the Air Force explained in an accompanying news release. The KC-135 aerial refueling tankers are assigned to the 168th Wing, Alaska Air National Guard. Exercises such as this demonstrate the ability of units to put large numbers of aircraft in the air quickly, just as they might be required to do during a major crisis.
As the USAF realigns its strategy towards “great power competition” with potential peer-state enemies like Russia and China, high-profile displays of readiness among its combat aircraft fleets are becoming far more common than they were in the past. These exercises also have special resonance at bases that are geographically closer to potential foes and flashpoints, which is the case at Eielson, located only around 110 miles south of the Arctic Circle.
“The Elephant Walk isn’t only to practice our abilities to respond quickly,” said Air Force Colonel David Skalicky, 354th Operations Group commander. “This is to show our airmen who work behind the scenes what Eielson AFB is about, it’s about showing our strength in the Arctic arena. We are executing this despite Coronavirus, despite the extreme weather conditions, and despite [it being] one of the shortest days of the year.”
“Every airman across the [354th] Fighter Wing contributed to today’s event, and we proved what our team is capable of supporting, defending, or delivering fifth-generation airpower and advanced training,” added Air Force Colonel David Berkland, the 354th’s commander. “Stay tuned, because our combat capability will continue to grow, and I’m incredibly proud of the disciplined, professional, combat-focused approach our team displayed today.”
Also on December 18, Eielson welcomed its second combat-coded F-35A unit, the 355th Fighter Squadron, known as the “Fighting Falcons.” The squadron was officially reactivated in a ceremony the same day as the Elephant Walk, providing a significant boost to the base’s — and the U.S. Pacific Air Forces’ — fifth-generation fighter jet capacity.
The buildup of the Alaskan stealth fighter fleet has been rapid following the arrival of the first pair of F-35As at the base in April 2020. The installation has received huge funding over the past three years to create a massive secure enclave for its new stealthy inhabitants. Ultimately, plans call for a total of 54 F-35As to be based at Eielson.
Commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Samuel Chipman, the 355th Fighter Squadron joins the 356th Fighter Squadron within the 354th Fighter Wing and has been re-established after 13 years of inactivity. The squadron previously flew A-10 Thunderbolt IIs out of Eielson until it was inactivated in August 2007.
“The squadron’s primary mission is the suppression of enemy air defenses and offensive counter-air missions,” explained Colonel Chipman. “Having two combat-coded F-35A squadrons at Eielson Air Force Base will provide PACAF and combatant commanders across the globe additional asset and deployment options, should the need arise to deter aggression by our adversaries.”
Colonel Skalicky, the 354th Operations Group commander, expressed his confidence in Colonel Chipman, the new commander of the ‘Fighting Falcons’: “He’s a very seasoned combat fighter pilot. His immense experience in leading fighter pilots into battle, dealing with our enemies, and making sure all our forces go home safely. He has that background. He knows how to do it.”
As the Arctic assumes greater strategic importance for the U.S. military as a whole, we can expect to see the two squadrons of Eielson F-35s, as well as their supporting assets, take on a more prominent role in the future, both protecting the homeland and projecting global power.
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