Massive cost overruns and delays have dogged the F-35, the new fighter slated for Eielson Air Force Base. But the Pentagon insists those problems are now under control.
So it was unfortunate optics that the general in charge of the Air Force budget, James Martin, fainted — forehead to podium — during a press briefing this week, just as he and his budget deputy, Carolyn Gleason, were answering questions about the F-35. Gleason grabbed the general by the arm and hardly missed a beat.
“That’s what the F-35 will do to you,” she said, as people rushed in to help Martin to a chair. He was led out of the Pentagon briefing room. She continued to discuss the purchasing schedule for the F-35.
Martin, before the episode, said spending constraints require the Air Force to buy fewer F-35s over the next five years, to save nearly $5 billion. Next year’s Air Force budget calls for 43 of the aircraft, instead of the 48 planned.
The Air Force chose Eielson as the first base in the Pacific for the F-35, pending environmental review. They are due to arrive in 2019.
Air Force Chief of Staff Mark Welsh sounded upbeat when he gave a progress report on Capitol Hill Wednesday, at the request of Sen. Lisa Murkowski.
“This is not a PowerPoint program anymore,” he told lawmakers at a Senate hearing. “About a year from now, we will have 100 F-35s in our Air Force inventory. We’ve already flown 45,000 hours on this airplane, collectively.”
Welsh says deferring the purchase of some F-35s will not affect the basing process.
“I’m very excited about getting the airplane to Alaska for two reasons,” he said, responding to a question from Murkowski. “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 maintenance manpower for the F-35, without adding personnel. They’ve been using contractors, but Welsh says they’ll need crews capable of deploying.
“As we get closer to full operational capability of this aircraft, 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.
Murkowski says the budget also includes nearly $300 million for Eielson, including seven projects to support the F-35.