Eielson’s F-35 buildup on schedule despite COVID delays

Two f-35 fighter jets are parked in front of a beige aircraft control tower
These two F-35s, with an F-16 parked in the middle, were the first to arrive at Eielson back on April 21. There are now nine on base. (Sean Martin/354th Fighter Wing)

The new commander of Eielson Air Force Base says the process of bringing in 54 new F-35 fighters is going smoothly, despite the challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Col. David Berkland says in addition to overseeing that process, he’s also working to transform the culture at Eielson from one that prioritizes training to one on focuses on readiness to deploy units to combat on short notice.

Col. David Berkland came to Eielson last month to assume command of the 354th Fighter Wing after serving a tour at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan. And while he’s been getting settled in, he’s also been preparing the base for the thousands of people who will be coming into the Interior with the F-35s by the end of next year.

“By the end of this, we’ll have 54 F-35s on the ramp, he said. “We’re expecting somewhere around 35-hundred personnel, and that includes family members – spouses, kids – as well as civilians and contractors.”

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Berkland said Thursday that nine F-35s have arrived at Eielson since the first two flew in back in April. He says there was a lot of concern back then about keeping the influx on schedule, because of Pentagon-imposed coronavirus precautions that halted movement of personnel or materiel, including the advanced stealth jet fighters being built at a factory in Texas by Lockheed Martin.

“That has been lifted,” he said, “and we have resumed flowing-in people and equipment, to include the aircraft coming off the line at Fort Worth. So, we’re on track.”

While he oversees that process, Berkland says he’s also begun emphasizing a change in the culture at Eielson that must come with a change in mission. In this case, that means refocusing the mindset of people who work and live on the base from one dedicated mainly to training to one mainly oriented toward deployment for combat. That’s the mission of the two F-35 squadrons.

“Hey, we are no longer a garrison mentality,” he said. “We are no longer a training wing – we are a combat wing, with a warfighting mentality. And that’s what we message to the airmen.”

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Berkland says training remains an essential mission at Eielson. He says the base conducted a logistics exercise earlier this month to determine its readiness to deploy the F-35s and their crews and equipment to hotspots around the Pacific Ocean or elsewhere on short notice.

Berkland says bigger exercises like Red Flag will continue to be based out of Eielson – and the F-35s will give U.S. and allied pilots experience flying with or against the so-called fifth-generation jet fighters.

“Integrating with fifth-generation airplanes is a rare opportunity for our joint teams here in the U.S., but as well as our partners across the Pacific, that get to come in and play in a Red Flag and work with fifth-gen F-35s.”

Eielson’s F-35s got their first chance to participate in Red Flag last month. And Berkland says aircraft are already beginning to arrive for the next round of Red Flag coming up next month. Those include F-16s from Misawa Air Base in Japan and F-18s from Marine Corps Air Station Miramar in California.