WASHINGTON — The COVID-19 pandemic could make it more difficult for the U.S. Air Force’s newest F-35 squadron to organize its personnel and jets on schedule.
On April 21, the 356th Fighter Squadron at Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska, became the service’s northernmost fighter squadron after receiving its first two F-35s. Pilots began flying those jets for training three days later, and another four F-35s on loan from Hill Air Force Base in Utah flew to Alaska on April 27.
But a couple key challenges could hamper the assemblage of the new squadron, said Col. Benjamin Bishop, commander of the base’s 354th Fighter Wing.
“We’re actually on timeline,” he told Defense News in an exclusive interview on April 28. “We have the pilots and maintainers already here to support operations throughout the summer. However, as you know, the Department of Defense has put a stop-movement order through [June 30], and that is something we’re working through on a case-by-case basis.”
Under the current order, pilots and maintainers who are moving through the training pipeline have been granted a blanket exception to transfer to Eielson. But more experienced pilots, maintainers and support personnel coming from an operational base like Hill Air Force Base will need to receive an exception.
Getting additional F-35s to Eielson could also be an obstacle, as Lockheed Martin assesses whether it must slow down deliveries of the F-35 due to disruptions to its supply chain. In a statement to Defense News, Lockheed spokesman Brett Ashworth could not say whether the company was on track to deliver F-35s to Eielson on schedule.
“Lockheed Martin continues to work with our suppliers daily to determine the impacts of COVID-19 on F-35 production,” he said. “We are analyzing impacts at this time and should have more detail in the coming weeks.”
If the coronavirus pandemic delays the pace of F-35 deliveries to Eielson, the squadron will have to mitigate the shortfall in jets, Bishop said. “Currently, we’re at a good pace on the road to readiness for our F-35 program here, and we’ll continue to adapt and adjust to bring this mission capability to its full potential in the Indo-Pacific theater,” he noted.
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Despite COVID-19 and the potential logistical challenges involved in sending people and F-35s to Eielson, day-to-day training operations have continued as normal, said Col. James Christensen, 356th Fighter Squadron commander. Having six F-35s on base allows maintainers to use the jets for training while also maximizing flight hours for the eight pilots currently in the 356th.
“We still do the mission the way we always have. We have the masks and the wipe procedures and social distancing,” Christensen said. “So [we’re] being creative but still being able to get the mission done.”
There are strategic benefits to being the U.S. Air Force’s northernmost fighter squadron, starting with access. With support from an aerial refueling tanker, the F-35s at Eielson can reach and target any location in Europe or the Asia-Pacific, Bishop said.
And even the harsh climate of Eielson has its perks. It’s a short flight away from the Joint Pacific Alaska Range Complex, the Defense Department’s largest instrumented training range, with 65,000 square miles of airspace.
“The F-35 is going to be able to fly in that airspace, but they’re not going to be alone,” Bishop said. F-35s training in that area will regularly be joined by F-22s based at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson in Anchorage, as well as the F-16s in Eielson’s 18th Aggressor Squadron that simulate enemy combat jets.
“You’re going to see amazing fifth-generation tactics and integration tactics emerge,” he said.
Russia is investing in its Arctic infrastructure, and the U.S. military must make its own improvements to how it operates from and trains in the region, said Gen. Terrence O’Shaughnessy, who leads U.S. Northern Command and the North American Aerospace Defense Command.
“It’s great to see some of the additional forces that are going in, whether it’s the F-35s going to Eielson, whether it’s the work of the Coast Guard to develop icebreakers,” he said during a May 4 event. “These are all relevant things for us to be able to operate in the Arctic. And that is absolutely, to me, key to our ability to defend ourselves.”
As the 356th stands up and becomes combat-ready, it will participate in the next Red Flag-Alaska, a multinational air-to-air combat training exercise slated to be held this August. The squadron is also looking for opportunities to deploy around the Asia-Pacific so that pilots can acclimate themselves to the long geographical distances that characterize the region, Christensen said.
“Everyone is excited just to have F-35s here because of the awesome training we can do, but we’re also thinking about at some point we have to project this air power out into the Indo-Pacific theater as a combat force. And transitioning everyone, including the wing and including [Pacific Air Forces] — they all have to adjust the mission of Eielson,” he said.
Unlike other fighter bases, which usually swap out existing aircraft of existing squadrons with new jets, the two F-35 squadrons coming to Eielson aren’t replacing anything, and infrastructure needs to be built to accommodate the anticipated growth in both people and aircraft.
When the first members of the 356th Fighter Squadron arrived on base in July 2019, Eielson was home to about 1,750 active-duty personnel, Bishop said. By December 2021, that number is expected to double, with the addition of about 1,500 airmen. In that time, 54 F-35s will be delivered to the base for a total of two squadrons — a notable increase from the 30 F-16s and KC-135s previously at Eielson.
An estimated $500 million will be spent on military construction to support the buildup at Eielson, including new operations buildings, a simulator building, heated hangars and other maintenance facilities, and a new cafeteria. A total of 41 facilities will be either built or refurbished with that funding, with 29 of those projects finished and others still under construction to support a second F-35 squadron, Bishop said.
And everything — from constructing new facilities to maintaining runways — is tougher in the subzero temperatures of the Arctic.
“Early on in this job, I learned that there are two seasons in Alaska,” Bishop said. “There’s winter and construction season, with the former a lot longer than the latter. From a beddown perspective, how you put your construction plan together, you have to maneuver around that season.”
“In order to maintain efficiency of fighter operations up here, one of the things we did is we built walled weather shelters for our aircraft, so all of our aircraft are actually housed in weather shelters,” he added. “That’s not necessarily for the aircraft. That’s more for the maintainers because having that insulated and heating facility, now you can do maintenance around the clock.”