It looks like we’ll be seeing some AK-coded F-35As flying around the Last Frontier in the near future, as Eielson AFB is likely to become home to two squadrons comprising 48 Lightning II aircraft. The Air Force already announced Eielson as being a preferred Pacific Air Forces (PACAF) base for the 5th generation jet, and is holding local community forums this month to solicit public commentary that will precede an Environmental Impact Statement.
The F-35s, if placed at Eielson, will join the resident F-16s of the 18th Aggressor Squadron (AGRS) and the Alaska Air National Guard’s 168th Air Refueling Wing (ARW). Neighbors to the south at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson (JBER) include a plethora of PACAF assets, including ridiculous amount – at least, given the limited numbers produced – of Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptors.
They’ll be right next door to the largest, not to mention the least populated, expanse of military airspace in the US, as Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James explains:
“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… combined with the largest airspace in the Air Force, ensures realistic combat training for the Department of Defense.”
With F-22s and F-35s based locally, Alaskan exercises such as Red Flag-Alaska and Northern Edge will have loads of 5th generation support, a training container that is increasingly vital for all 4th generation (F-16, F-15, etc.) aircrew going forward.
The plans to base F-35s in the area allows the Fairbanks community to breathe a sigh of relief, since only a couple years ago during sequestration, the 18th AGRS was recently targeted for relocation to JBER. Though the decision was deferred, several options remain on the table regarding PACAF’s only dedicated Aggressor Squadron, to again include a move to JBER or even all the way south to join the 64th AGRS at Nellis.
The 18th could potentially stay put at Eielson, but if such a move happens it would have a negative impact on the local economy – a fact that is not so easily lost on the large military community in Fairbanks. The good news is that the addition of F-35s would help to reverse those effects and ensure Eielson maintains its essential role within PACAF well into the future, especially with the DoD’s shift in focus to the Pacific theater.
Provided the timeframe doesn’t slip to the right, Eielson should see its first F-35A around 2019. While no announcement has been made as far as the units that will operate the F-35s, perhaps we’ll see a reactivation of some historic 354FW squadrons??