The Air Force will send two squadrons of F-35A fighter aircraft to Eielson Air Force Base near Fairbanks, the military announced Monday.
The announcement marked the last in a series of formal steps toward the decision to bring 54 new stealth strike fighters to Alaska, accompanied by nearly 3,000 people connected to the F-35 program, including airmen and contractors.
Eielson has "the largest airspace in the Air Force," a "strategically important location with a world-class training environment" and easy access to the Joint Pacific Alaska Range Complex -- all of which, combined, "ensures realistic combat training," Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James said in a statement announcing the final decision.
The move comes after years of lobbying by Alaska's elected officials -- local, state and congressional -- for the high-dollar military project, in hopes that it would prevent downsizing at the base. The Greater Fairbanks Chamber of Commerce, which has advocated locating the new F-35 squadrons at the base, said the new construction and additional military families could add $1.3 billion in annual revenue for the Fairbanks North Star Borough.
The military's program to develop the new aircraft, called the F-35 Lightning II and produced by Lockheed Martin, has come under fire for years of delays and cost overruns. The nearly $400 billion cost makes it the most expensive weapons system in U.S. history. Design flaws, such as dangers related to a $400,000 pilot's helmet featuring a mounted display system, have plagued the roll-out. The Air Force already has 26 F-35As, the version of the aircraft that is headed to Eielson, stationed at bases in the Lower 48. Some 16 alternate versions (F-35B and F-35C) are in the hands of the Marines and Navy.
The new F-35As are scheduled to arrive in Fairbanks in 2020, and construction at the base should begin in fiscal year 2017, the Air Force said Monday.
The aircraft were originally expected to arrive in 2019, but the "Air Force is facing a shortage of experienced, active-duty fighter aircraft maintainers as we transition" away from older aircraft, said Lt. Gen. John B. Cooper, the deputy chief of staff in the Air Force for logistics, installations and mission support.
While the Air Force works on training active-duty officers in Alaska, new F-35s will first go to the Burlington Air Guard Station in Vermont in 2019, flip-flopping the original schedule. The Air National Guard already has an "experienced fighter aircraft maintenance force," Cooper said.
Alaska Rep. Don Young (R) said he would keep a close eye on the decision to swap timelines for Burlington and Eielson "to ensure the Air Force and the F-35 program stay on track." Young inserted language in defense authorization bills that encouraged the decision to move the F-35s to Eielson.
The Air Force estimated that homing two new F-35A squadrons at Eielson would boost the total base population to 7,751 by adding 2,765 people, according to an environmental review of the plans released in February. The report estimated that the new squadrons would add 1,076 active-duty military members, 487 civilian and contractor employees, and 1,202 military dependents. Currently, just short of 2,000 active duty military personnel are stationed at the base.
More than a dozen types of types of aircraft operate temporarily from Eielson, along with 21 F-16s, nine KC-135s and two HH-60s that are stationed at the base, according to the environmental review.
Adding 54 F-35s and more than 1,500 military and civilian employees will require a lot of construction at the base, including new buildings and updated infrastructure. The Air Force estimates the construction will cost $453 million and affect about 66 acres of land. President Barack Obama's latest budget request includes $295.6 million for F-35 related construction at Eielson Air Force Base in the next fiscal year.
Alaska's congressional delegation and Gov. Bill Walker cheered the decision Monday, citing the economic benefits to Fairbanks and the implications for Alaska's position as a strategic outpost for national security.
The decision to put two F-35 squadrons in Fairbanks establishes Alaska as "a critical hub of combat air power for our nation," said Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, who noted "rising threats in the Arctic, on the Korea Peninsula, and in the South China Sea."
Walker said the decision "has once again confirmed Alaska's strategic significance and critical location on the globe."
"From the announcement to delay cuts to JBER's 4-25, basing the Gray Eagle UAV's and Apache Helicopters at Fort Wainwright, keeping the F-16s at Eielson and now today's announcement, it is clear (the Defense Department) understands that Alaska's strategic value -- its vast training areas, proximity to the Asia-Pacific, and our commitment to serving our military -- is unmatched anywhere else in the world," Young said after the announcement.
Lawmakers noted that the decision signed Monday marks a major turnaround for the fate of the base.
"The road to today's announcement began in 2005 when it was determined that Eielson Air Force Base would be shut down. Alaskans pulled together and fought hard to stop that from happening, ultimately making today's news a reality," Walker said.
Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski called the news "a remarkable reversal of fortune for Eielson Air Force Base." Citing her positions on the Defense Appropriations and Military Construction Appropriations subcommittees, Murkowski said she will "work to fund the planes, the people, and the military construction to make this a reality."