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Eielson, JBER on Air Force's short list to act as bases for F-35 fighters

Dermot Cole
An F-35B fighter jet. Defense Department photo

FAIRBANKS -- Air Force officials said today that Eielson Air Force Base and Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson are among five sites selected as a potential home for the first Pacific squadrons of the new F-35 fighter jet.

The U.S. Air Force plans to select two or three of the five bases as preferred alternatives, leading to a more extensive study and a decision by 2016, said Sen. Mark Begich.

“Today is great news for Alaska because it demonstrates the Pentagon recognizes our state’s strategic position in the nation’s defense,” Begich said. “With Alaska’s strategic geographic position, unrivaled training environment and ample air space, there is no better choice for stationing F-35s in the Pacific.”

Last fall, the Air Force said it would review a series of locations and consider cost, infrastructure, environmental issues and strategic issues in deciding where to place F-35s in the Pacific.

The Air Force estimates that 48 planes, with a total price in the billions, will be housed at the location it selects in the Pacific region. So far about 100 of the new jets have been delivered to the military for flight tests. Full battlefield testing is expected to begin in 2018.

In an Oct. 15 letter to the chief of staff of the Air Force and the acting secretary of the Air Force, the Alaska congressional delegation of Sen. Lisa Murkowski, Rep. Don Young and Begich promoted the advantages of the Interior Alaska base. “We believe that Eielson is the perfect staging location for F-35 operations in the Asia-Pacific Theater and recommend giving it strong consideration,” they said, adding that a new 168-room dormitory funded in 2012 will improve the facilities for airmen.

The F-35 is so-called “fifth-generation” technology, based on the notion of five stages in jet fighter development, with the first being the subsonic fighters used in the Korean War. The military refers to the F-22 Raptor, introduced nearly a decade ago, as the first of the fifth generation fighters.

“Highly capable adversaries in the Asia-Pacific Theater are rapidly evolving their fifth-generation capability and our nation must stand ready to counter this threat should conflict erupt,” the Alaska group said.

Gen. Herbert "Hawk" Carlisle, commander of Pacific Air Forces, said last summer that Eielson had enough airspace for training and that it is the right spot on the globe.

"Eielson fares very well, mostly because of the training space, the range," he said, adding that the military construction cost would be low, too, because of existing infrastructure. “It’s part of the Pacific and they can get to Northeast Asia rapidly,” said Carlisle, a former Elmendorf commander.

Manufacturer Lockheed Martin says the cost of the jets is in the $75 million range, but critics say the actual expense reflected in the defense budget is much higher even when not taking research and development into account. Winslow Wheeler, an analyst from the Project of Government Oversight, wrote that the defense budget approved by Congress envisions that the jets will cost an average of $185 million in 2014.

The Air Force version is pegged at $159 million, while the design for the Marine Corps version of the same aircraft is $214 million and the Navy jet is $264 million.

“But none of that is the whole story; these calculations may well be undercounts of what F-35s will cost in fiscal year 2014,” he wrote Jan. 23, adding that the number is unrealistically low.

He said the 2014 budget trimmed $652 million from the F-35 program, but there was no change in the plan to take delivery of 29 jets this year.

Dermot Cole can be reached at dermot(at)alaskadispatch.com. Follow him on Twitter at @DermotMCole.