Budget defers 5 jets, but Air Force general ‘excited’ for F-35s in Alaska

Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh
Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh

President Obama’s 2017 Air Force budget would slow the pace of buying F-35s. That’s the new fighter jet slated for Eielson Air Force Base. But Air Force Chief of Staff Mark Welsh still speaks highly of the plan to keep them at the Fairbanks base. Welsh says production and testing of the aircraft is well underway.

“This is not a PowerPoint program anymore. About a year from now, we will have 100 F-35s in our Air Force inventory,” he said. “We’ve already flown 45,000 hours on this airplane, collectively.”

The Air Force chose Eielson as the first base in the Pacific for the F-35, pending environmental review. Welsh gave a brief progress report at a congressional hearing yesterday, at the request of Sen. Lisa Murkowski. Gen. Welsh says he expects the aircraft to reach the milestone of “Initial Operating Capability” at the end of the year.

“I’m very excited about getting the airplane to Alaska for two reasons,” Welsh said. “Partners in the Pacific will want to buy the F-35. And we can train with them in Alaska like we can train in very few other places in the world. The range airspace there is phenomenal. And that location, we’ve talked about this before—geography does matter, and Alaska is blessed with it.”

The Air Force is still struggling to find enough maintenance manpower for the F-35, without adding personnel. They’ve been using contractors and taking maintainers from older aircraft, but Welsh says the Air Force needs maintainers capable of deploying.

“As we get closer to full operational capability of this aircraft, and we have more squadrons fielding, we need to get at active duty Air Force maintainers and have them available to stand up operational bases like Eielson,” he said.

The budget the White House released this week calls for buying forty-three F-35s for the Air Force next year. That’s five fewer of the $100-million fighters than planned for 2017.

Murkowski says the budget also includes $295.6 million for Eielson, including seven projects to support the F-35.

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Liz Ruskin covers Alaska issues in Washington as the network's D.C. correspondent. She was born in Anchorage and is a West High grad. She has degrees from the University of Washington and the University of Missouri School of Journalism in Columbia. She previously worked at the Homer News, the Anchorage Daily News and the Washington bureau of McClatchy Newspapers. She also freelanced for several years from the U.K. and Japan, in print and radio. Liz has been APRN’s Washington, D.C. correspondent since October 2013. She welcomes your news tips at lruskin (at) alaskapublic (dot) org  | About Liz