Eielson named preferred location for F-35s

AP Photo/Senior Airman Julianne Showalter/U.S. Air Force

The U.S. Air Force announced Eielson Air Force Base is its preferred location for two new squadrons of F-35 fighters Aug. 7, less than a year after the base avoided losing an F-16 squadron.

“Today, Alaska is a huge winner in this, but so is the nation because there is no question about our military readiness in Alaska,” Sen. Mark Begich said at a press conference held in Anchorage immediately following the announcement.

A total of 48 of the fifth-generation fighters from Lockheed Martin, which can run up to about $120 million apiece, are likely headed to the Interior. Begich said several hundred military and civilian support positions will follow the squadrons, and projections are for about 2,000 new residents to the region when family members are included.

Begich, Sen. Lisa Murkowski and Rep. Don Young received the news while on a conference call with the Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James, he said.

“In Alaska, it’s always been about the mission. From the interceptors at Greely to the combat-coded F-22s at JBER, the U.S. military truly understands Alaska strategic position. I am pleased to say today that the Air Force continues this understanding by placing the world’s most premiere fighter aircraft at Eielson,” Young said in a release from his office.

Up next is an expedited environmental impact statement; a formal record of decision should be ready by November 2015, Begich said. From there, he said upwards of $170 million will be poured into construction and other projects to prepare Eielson for the fighters’ arrival in 2019.

“Basing the F-35s at Eielson will allow the Air Force the capability of using the Joint Pacific Alaska Range Complex for large force exercises using a multitude of ranges and maneuver areas in Alaska,” James said in a formal statement. “This, combined with the largest airspace in the Air Force, ensures realistic combat training for the (Department of Defense).”

Sen. Murkowski largely echoed the sentiment of the other Alaska congressional delegation members in a statement from her office.

“The potential one-two punch of F-35s with our F-22 fighters at (Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson) creates tremendous synergy for high-end training at the Joint Pacific Alaska Range Complex, and would ensure Air Force pilots and joint force operators are the most capable and ready forces in the world,” she said. “I am pleased that our military leaders see clearly Alaska’s role in our national defense. Today, Alaskans are one step closer to hearing welcoming lightening in the Alaska air.”

Eielson beat out JBER for the F-35s. The Alaska bases were on the Pentagon’s short list released in February of five potential Pacific locations to get the fighters.

The preliminary decision comes on the heels of a win for the delegation when it encouraged the Air Force to keep the 18th Aggressor Squadron F-16 fighters at Eielson last October rather than move them to JBER, as the Pentagon had initially said it would do. Such a move would have crippled the Fairbanks economy and further stressed Anchorage’s already overburdened housing market, state leaders alleged.

Begich said the community involvement in the fight to keep the F-16s at Eielson demonstrated to Air Force leaders how much the military means to the region.

“I’ve got to give a lot, a lot of credit to the Fairbanks Interior region,” he said. “They came out in droves; they had information; they had data; they went to every public hearing; they made sure the Department of Defense heard from Alaskans firsthand why a base location decision in Alaska was the right decision, especially at Eielson.”

Equipped with the absolute latest radar-evading and secure communications technologies, every F-35 is a major investment. Cost overruns by Lockheed Martin and its contractors, have pushed the acquisition cost of the nearly 2,500 F-35s the Pentagon ultimately hopes to have in its fleet up $7.4 billion to just less than $400 billion, according to a Defense Department report released in April.

At the same time, the report estimates a savings of nearly $100 billion over the life of the $1.01 trillion F-35 program due in part to revised fuel maintenance cost projections.

An engine failure on an Air Force F-35 at a Florida air base June 23 prompted a grounding of the roughly 100 aircraft across the country. The grounding has since been lifted but flight restrictions are in place on Air Force and Navy planes, according to the Pentagon.

Begich attributed the purchase price hike to “cost plus” contracts with Lockheed Martin and its contractors, which allowed for higher costs to be passed on to the Department of Defense. Pressure from Congress pushed the involved parties to go to fixed cost contracts, he said.

Begich also acknowledged that the new technology in the F-35s is inherently expensive.

“As you design a new platform — F-35 — you’re going to have a lot of new technologies that are being developed literally as you’re designing it that are unknown at the time you started the planning process,” he said.

Lockheed Martin has said it is partnering with other contractors working on the fighters to put $170 million towards affordability measures over the next two years.

“This is a significant change in business approach within the F-35 program,” F-35 Program Executive Lt. Gen. Chris Bogdan said in a statement from Lockheed Martin. “Industry partners will make an upfront investment into cost cutting measures that the government and taxpayers will reap benefits from by buying F-35s at a lower cost. By 2019, we expect that the F-35 with its unprecedented 5th generation capability will be nearly equal in cost to any other fighter on the market, but with far more advanced capability.”

Going forward, Begich said it is the responsibility of Congress to make sure contract terms for the project are adhered to.

Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected].

11/22/2016 - 2:46pm