The Alaska Air National Guard unit at Eielson Air Force Base will be getting four more aerial-refueling tankers over the next couple of years and about 200 active-duty servicemembers to help maintain them.
The 168th Wing at Eielson already hauls more fuel than any other Air National Guard tanker wing. And it’ll be even more so after four additional KC-135 tankers arrive over the next two years, bringing the total number of tankers assigned to the unit to 12.
“The first aircraft will start arriving in fiscal year ’23, so as early as about a year and a half from now, potentially,” says Col. Richard Adams, the 168th’s wing commander. “And then (they’ll) be fully operational in FY25.”
Adams says the 168th is the busiest Air Guard tanker unit mainly because it provides fuel for pilots training to fly F-22 fighters out of Joint Base Elmendorf Richardson.
“Most of what we do goes directly to the F-22s in training, to extend their training capacity,” he said in an interview Monday.
Adams says the air tankers also refuel U.S. and allied aircraft passing through the region en route to or from destinations around the Pacific Ocean and beyond.
He says another mission that keeps the 168th busy is refueling the F-22s and surveillance aircraft that typically are scrambled by the North American Aerospace Defense Command, or NORAD, to intercept and escort Russian planes that frequently enter international airspace offshore, within the Alaska Air Defense Identification Zone.
“And then of course to help support our Alaska NORAD region partners when they’re out protecting the airspace from Russian flights.” Adams said.
That happened most recently early Monday morning, when two Russian Tu-142 maritime patrol planes flew into the air ID zone. That was 10 days after the Alaska National Guard first announced that the new tankers were coming to Eielson, along with some 200 Air Force servicemembers.
“The majority of that number will be maintenance personnel. And they’ll be working alongside Alaska guardsmen to maintain all 12 aircraft,” Adams said.
Fairbanks North Star Borough Mayor Bryce Ward hailed last week’s announcement about the additional air-refueling tankers and servicemembers coming to Eielson.
“This is incredibly amazing for our community,” Ward said in an interview last week. “Additional mission, additional people, and so we’re very excited about what that means.
The mayor says the air-refueling wing’s expanded mission adds to the economic boost that’s already coming out of Eielson, because of the 3,500 Air Force personnel and their family members that are coming to the base as part of the buildup for two new squadrons of F-35 fighter jets that’ll also be based there.