UPDATED: Air Force officials say they chose Eielson Air Force Base as the preferred Pacific-region location to station the service’s next-generation warplane mainly because of the training opportunities in this area.
Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James says the 65,000 square miles of available airspace in the Joint Pacific Alaska Range Complex will enable pilots of the F-35A to train under many different and realistic conditions.
Thursday’s announcement by the Air Force doesn’t mean two squadrons of F-35s is imminent. It signals the beginning of environmental-impact studies that may lead to a final decision in about a year. If that confirms that Eielson is the best choice, the 48 new aircraft and accompanying personnel would be arriving in 2019.
Sen. Mark Begich’s says it’s not quite a done deal, but he’s nearly certain that the Air Force will be basing up to 48 F-35s at Eielson.
“This decision today puts us on the path to have F-35s, all two squadrons, at Eielson in the near future,” Begich said. “And that’s a good sign for us, good sign for Alaska, good sign for the Interior.”
Sen. Lisa Murkowski says she’s also confident.
“Eielson clearly is the front-runner,” Murkowski said. “There was no reasonable alternative which was identified, they moved straight to the preferred alternative, which I think is really quite compelling for Eielson.”
But Fairbanks North Star Borough Mayor Luke Hopkins says it’s good news that’s especially welcome because it comes at a time when bad economic news has been the norm.
“It’s new dollars coming into the economy, and that’s what the important piece is -- we get to grow,” Hopkins said. “We get to grow with our population, Our school system will see growth. Businesses will see more work, more jobs. It’s stimulating to the economy. It’s new dollars. And that’s what’s really great to hear for our community.”
Begich says the move could bring up to 2,000 people into the Fairbanks area, including hundreds of civilian workers, contractors and military personnel.
Air Force officials say the two F-35A Lightning II squadrons that would be based at Eielson would be the service’s first in the Pacific theater.
The F35A is a single-seat, single-engine fighter with stealth technology that can carry a variety of weaponry and payloads.
The F-35 program is said to be the Pentagon’s costliest weapons program ever. Each of the Air Force version of the planes would cost $148 million,
The Pentagon has taken delivery of more than 100 F-35s so far for flight tests.
Now that the service has identified Eielson as its preferred location, it will begin another study to determine where to base another unit – the 18th Aggressor Squadron and its F-16s.
Deputy assistant Air Force secretary Timothy Bridges says Eielson will also be included in the installations that will be considered as the Aggressor Squadron’s home base.