The US Air Force will station two operational F-35A squadrons on America’s northwestern flank in Alaska, nearby where F-22s typically intercept long-range Russian TU-95 “Bear” bombers.
Eielson AFB, an approximately 1h flight north of the Lockheed Martin F-22As stationed at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson in middle Alaska, will eventually house two Lightning II squadrons comprised of 24 F-35s each, plus six backup inventory aircraft.
The announcement by the air force on 4 April completes a long-running basing decision process, which considered whether to base F-35s assigned to the Pacific theatre at Eielson AFB. USAF assessed the site based on "operational considerations, installation attributes, environmental factors and cost".
Basing preparations will begin at the turn of the fiscal year in October and aircraft should begin arriving in late 2019 through 2020, which is about one year later than forecast when Eielson AFB was announced as the preferred Pacific F-35 site in August 2014.
The first operational F-35s arrived at Hill AFB in Utah in September 2015
US Air Force
Those Lightning IIs will join an F-16 aggressor squadron already operating from the base, and will have the distinction of being the “first operational overseas F-35As” – owing to the fact that Alaska is not counted as part of the USA mainland because it is geographically separated by Canada.
The delay in aircraft deliveries to Alaska is in response to a "shortage of experienced, active-duty fighter aircraft maintainers” and allows for the slightly accelerated stand up of F-35 operations at the Burlington Air Guard Station in Vermont, according to an air force statement.
“The decision to base two F-35 squadrons at Eielson AFB combined with the existing F-22 Raptors at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson will double our fifth-generation fighter aircraft presence in the Pacific theatre,” says USAF chief of staff Gen Mark Welsh, who notes that those aircraft will add to the F-35s flown by the US Navy and Marine Corps as well as allied operators. That’s particularly relevant to Japan, South Korea and Australia, which are standing sentinel alongside US forces against a more assertive China and belligerent North Korea.
“It's an exciting time for Pacific airpower,” Welsh adds.
The first of many F-22 Raptor intercepts of Russian Air Force Tu-95 Bear bombers off the coast of Alaska, this one near Nunivak Island in 2007
US Air Force
For Eielson AFB and the surrounding Fairbanks area, this basing decision validates long-held views that the air force site is too strategically important to let fall by the wayside. The local area and its members of Congress have been lobbying to keep the base alive after it was named on a 2005 memorandum for base realignment and closure.
Instead of being placed on a “warm” footing with no mission or aircraft, the base has retained its F-16 aggressors, thanks to its proximity to the Joint Pacific Alaska Range Complex – the largest area of unrestricted airspace that the service has access to.
“Alaska combines a strategically important location with a world-class training environment,” says air force secretary Deborah Lee James.