Murkowski Receives F-35 Update from Air Force

Today Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) questioned Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James and Air Force Chief of Staff General Mark A. Welsh III on the status of the F-35s arriving in Alaska.

Murkowski began her line of questioning in a Senate Defense Appropriations Subcommittee hearing on the FY17 budget request and funding justification for the U.S. Air Force by asking Secretary Deborah James:

“We know that there are some naysayers out there that believe that the plane will not be capable of meeting its mission. There are other naysayers who are saying it’s going to be so expensive, we’re never going to see it materialize in Alaska. I don’t think that is true and I hope you don’t either. Why is it important that the F-35s be placed in the Interior? Why is it necessary to do it now? And do you foresee any issues that should concern us with either the buy or with the capability of the plane?”

Secretary Deborah James responded to the Senator’s questions by saying:

“I would just begin by stating that the capability the F-35 will bring to us is just very, very important for the nation as we look to the defense against these so-called ‘high-end threats.’ Placing them in Alaska of course is part and parcel of looking toward the Pacific, being prepared to respond to problems that could occur in the Pacific. Alaska is a very strategic location. As for how the program is going, please keep in mind that it is a program that is still in development. If you look back to our other major development programs throughout our history as an Air Force, those too had challenges that had to be overcome. That piece of it is not unusual.”

(Click image to watch Murkowski’s Q&A with Secretary James.)

Placing a new aircraft into service requires a dedicated force of maintenance personnel. Senator Murkowski asked General Welsh about the challenges the Air Force faces in building that maintenance force for the F-35s, given force structure constraints and decisions to keep older aircraft that were expected to be retired in service.

Air Force Chief of Staff General Welsh addressed Senator Murkowski concerns, saying:

“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 at operational basis at Eielson, which is why we can’t delay divesting other systems forever. Eventually we are going to have to find more manpower. And as a result, eventually we are going to have to transition maintenance guys out of other systems and put them in the F-35s, unless our top line goes up and we allowed to just grow more Air Force—which I’m not anticipating in the next couple of years.”

Nevertheless, General Welsh believes that these obstacles will be overcome and is enthusiastic about basing the F-35 in Alaska:

“This is not a PowerPoint program anymore. 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. None of the problems you are hearing about in the paper are new problems. Software has been an issue—projections have been four to six months behind for the past four to five years. So we are continuing to grind on these things and we will solve them.

“I am confident that we will reach Initial Operating Capability at the end of this year. And I’m very excited about getting the airplane to Alaska for two reasons. 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. Getting to Alaska in support of our allies quickly from there is much easier there than from other places.”

(Click image to watch Murkowski’s Q&A with General Welsh.)

Background: The President’s budget, released yesterday, contains a proposed $295.6 million for Eielson Air Force Base, including seven projects related to the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter beddown. F-35 basing at Eielson AFB is contingent on publication of the Final Environmental Impact Statement and the execution of a Record of Decision by the Air Force.