F-35A Lightning IIs return to Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., after a sortie Feb. 1. The Air Force is studying where to base an F-35 squadron outside the continental U.S. (Capt. Edward Schmitt/Air Force)
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The Air Force in November is expected to announce which bases it is considering to be the home of the first F-35A squadron outside of the continental United States.
Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska, has been the front-runner for the assignment since Gen. Hawk Carlisle, commander of Pacific Air Forces, told reporters last summer that the base has enough range space, and is easily accessible by Korean and Japanese crews. And on Oct. 15, the Alaska congressional delegation sent a letter to Air Force leaders highlighting Eielson’s capability.
Other Pacific Air Forces bases considered possible contenders are Osan Air Base, South Korea, and Kadena and Misawa air bases, Japan.
The Air Force on Oct. 11 notified Congress of the initial criteria by which it will evaluate potential bases, including the base’s mission, capacity, environmental considerations and cost factors.
After the candidate list is announced next month, the Air Force will begin site surveys to assess operational and training requirements, potential impacts to existing missions, housing, infrastructure and manpower, Air Force spokeswoman Ann Stefanek said.
The preferred base, along with reasonable alternatives, is expected to be announced in February, with environmental impact studies to follow, according to the Air Force letter.
If the preferred base is overseas, the Defense Department will then consult with the host nation, Stefanek said.
As the front-runner, “Eielson fares very well,” Carlisle said last summer. “It’s part of the Pacific and they can get to Northeast Asia rapidly.” The base already hosts Red Flag-Alaska exercises, which involve both U.S. and international crews.
The Alaska congressional delegation, in its letter highlighting Eielson’s capability, focused on the Joint Pacific Alaska Range Complex near the base and the construction of a new 168-room dormitory on base.
“These strengths, coupled with other available infrastructure and continued investment make Eielson Air Force Base a clear choice to base the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter in the Asia-Pacific Theater,” said the letter, signed by Democratic Sen. Mark Begich and Republicans Sen. Lisa Murkowski and Rep. Don Young.
Eieilson’s front-runner status is also reflected in the Air Force’s Oct. 2 decision to not move an F-16 squadron from the base to Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska. The move keeps the 18th Aggressor Squadron, whose F-16s are used as adversaries in training, at Eielson and maintains base infrastructure that could also be used by F-35s.
PacAF bases unlikely to be contenders for the F-35 squadron are Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Hawaii, and Elmendorf, which already have F-22 squadrons. Andersen Air Force Base, Guam, does not have enough air space, and Yokota Air Base, Japan, already has C-130s, Carlisle said.
The F-35 basing announcement comes on the heels of continued studies and congressional pressure to close overseas bases, especially those in Europe. The Senate Armed Services Committee last spring released an investigation looking at recommending cutting back the U.S. presence in foreign countries, which comes at a cost of about $10 billion per year.
The RAND Corp. last month released its own report on Air Force basing overseas, which found that the service spends about $1.3 billion for bases in the Pacific, and $2.2 billion in Europe. Closing a base in the Pacific could bring about $190 million in savings. On a squadron-level, RAND found that moving 24 F-16s from abroad to the continental U.S. could save $17 million to $20 million per year, though the report cautioned against the focus on closing these bases for budget reasons.
“The primary risk in the presence debate is making choices that produce relatively modest savings, but with potentially enormous strategic and fiscal consequences,” the report states.