Connecting Alaska to the World And the World to Alaska
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Eielson’s F-35s to Debut in Red Flag Training, Despite Pandemic-imposed Downsizing

Department of Defense/DVIDS

The skies over the Eastern Interior will be busy over the next couple of weeks, as Eielson Air Force Base conducts another round of Red Flag aerial combat training, beginning Saturday. It’ll be the first time that Eielson’s F-35s will participate in the training exercises, which have been hampered this year by the COVID-19 pandemic.

All nine of Eielson’s F-35s will make their debut in this round of Red Flag training, along with several F-22 fighter jets from Joint Base Elmendorf Richardson. The officer overseeing the exercises says they’ve been designed to challenge those sophisticated warplanes and their pilots.

“It’s the opportunity for us to test their capabilities against some advanced threats,” says Lt. Col. Gregory Hunter, who commands Eielson’s 353rd Combat Training Squadron.

Hunger says the realistic scenarios the pilots and aircraft will face in the expansive airspace over the Joint Pacific Alaska Range Complex include simulated air-to-air combat and surface-to-air missile attacks. The JPARC has a total of 75,000 square miles of airspace over ranges scattered throughout the Interior.

Hunger says it’s important to test the fighters so they’re prepared to face-off if needed with other so-called fifth-generation warplanes, like Russia’s Su-57 and China’s J-31.

“What we want to do with the F-35s and the F-22s is really push that envelope, as far as the training for combat capability,” Hunger said.

Other U.S. aircraft participating in exercises include Eielson’s F-16s and additional F-35s from Hill Air Force Base in Utah. Also, AWACS reconnaissance aircraft and C-17 cargo planes from J-BER, and a B-1 bomber out of Ellsworth Air Force Base in South Dakota.

Credit Department of Defense/DVIDS
A B-1B Lancer like this one stationed at Ellsworth Air Force Base, S.D., will be among the aircraft participating in the Red Flag exercises that begin Saturday.

But this round of Red Flag will not include the usual complement of allied nations’ warplanes and pilots. Their participation was canceled, Hunger said, because of coronavirus concerns.

“Due to COVID and health measures we put in place, we’ve reduced the footprint significantly,” he said. “So, we’ll have no foreign nations participating.”

Hunger says concerns compelled the Pacific Air Forces which sponsors Red Flag to cancel two rounds of the exercises that had scheduled for May and June. PACAF also reduced the number of U.S. servicemembers participating in this iteration by about half, to 1,200, including 450 each from Eielson and J-BER, and 300 from units outside Alaska.

“Originally, we were looking to have 1,700 participants here at Eielson, and then around 400 at Joint Base Elmendorf Richardson,” he said.

Credit KUAC file graphic
Most of the aircraft activity related to to this round of Red Flag training will take place in airspace over JPARC ranges in the eastern Interior, from the Yukon River to around Tok.

Those servicemembers will carry on the exercises out of Eielson while work continues on maintenance that’s required closure of the southern end of the runway. But Hunger says there’s still plenty of room to accommodate the aircraft participating in Red Flag.

“So the runway here is normally 14,500 feet – very long runway,” he said, “and the construction that’s occurring on the runway is only occurring in the first couple thousand feet of the runway. So participants will have 11,000 feet of runway available to them.”

Hunger says residents of the eastern Interior can expect to hear increased aircraft activity twice every weekday through Aug. 16, beginning at 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. throughout an area extending roughly from the Yukon River , about 100 miles north of Fairbanks, to around Tok, some 200 miles to the south, and eastward to the U.S.-Canadian border.

Editor's note: This story was revised to update the number of F-35s assigned to Eielson that have arrived so far. Base officials said Friday the total is now nine.

Tim has worked in the news business for over three decades, mainly as a newspaper reporter and editor in southern Arizona. Tim first came to Alaska with his family in 1967, and grew up in Delta Junction before emigrating to the Lower 48 in 1977 to get a college education and see the world.