As the F-35A strike fighter begins to enter the inventory in significant numbers, the Air Force is already hard at work establishing homes for all 1,763 of the advanced stealth jets it plans to buy. The massive undertaking requires the Air Force to plan decades into the future, accommodating the aircraft, the support facilities, and gear they’ll need and the airmen who will fly and maintain the F-35s at bases worldwide.
In January, the Pentagon announced that RAF Lakenheath, UK, will be the first European base to permanently host Air Force F-35s, starting in 2020. The base is home to F-15C and F-15E fighters today.
Many decisions related to this project remain in flux or are years away. Some of these relate to deciding where the aircraft should be stationed, while others relate to the task of bedding them down.
“We will probably make the last basing decision in the early 2030 time frame, and the beddown would probably last into the latter part of the 2030s,” said Mark A. Pohlmeier, the Air Force’s chief of strategic basing, in an interview.
The Lockheed Martin-built F-35As will form the backbone of the Air Force’s future fighter fleet. Some 1,420 of them will be spread across units of the combat air forces, replacing legacy platforms like the A-10 and F-16. The goal is to field the F-35A at locations now hosting fighters and in squadron sizes closely matching those of the legacy units to minimize the cost of conversion.
Another 315 or so F-35As will support training, said Air Education and Training Command officials, while a small number will perpetually be involved in testing.
The F-35A today operates from four Air Force bases, not including Marine Corps and Navy locations operating the F-35s unique to those services. Test F-35As fly from Edwards AFB, Calif., and Nellis AFB, Nev., while training of pilots and maintainers alike is being done at Eglin AFB, Fla., and Luke AFB, Ariz.
At each location, USAF has invested millions of construction dollars to enhance the infrastructure to support the jets and associated people. Those projects range from expanding ramp space to new hangars, maintenance facilities, and housing.
There’s nothing inherently more difficult about bedding down F-35s than previous fighters, despite the scope and magnitude of the effort, said officials across the Air Force’s three components. It doesn’t have overly complex or unique infrastructure requirements, said Pohlmeier, who noted that the F-22 Raptor was more challenging to bed down due to its somewhat more finicky stealth skin.
The Air Force is also prepping Hill AFB, Utah, to host three squadrons of F-35As, replacing F-16s there. Hill’s first assigned F-35A is expected to touch down in September, although other F-35s have visited previously for form, fit, and function checks. The base will be USAF’s first operational location, so the buildup there is crucial to the service’s goal of declaring combat readiness with the jet in August 2016.
Air Force initial operational capability is about one year after the Marine Corps’ planned July 2015 IOC date for its short-takeoff F-35Bs and about two years before the Navy’s carrier-optimized F-35C is to be combat ready in 2018.
Air Force officials said the F-35A will achieve full operational capability when it has two wings’ worth of aircraft with the highest level of capability.
Work also continues at Luke to ready the F-35A combat training mission and initial prep is underway at Burlington Arpt., Vt.—the Guard’s first F-35A operating location—to support the new mission coming there in 2020.
The F-35A basing puzzle will take clearer shape in the coming months. During that period, USAF will make final the details of the second F-35A fleet basing strategy. This planning document will set the conditions for choosing the next three or more operating locations, said Pohlmeier. Once complete, the strategy will go to Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James for approval. It could include plans for a Reserve F-35 site.
After that, the next round of basing selections should be announced in spring 2016, according to Air Combat Command.
The first F-35A fleet basing strategy established how USAF would choose the first set of training and operational homes for the F-35A. It dates to 2009.
“We have an acquisition strategy that lays down all 1,763 aircraft coming down the production line. The fleet basing strategy takes that and packages it into a rational set of decisions as to what we want to do with these aircraft in a logical flow,” said Pohlmeier.
Take That Hill
The strategy set conditions for the Air Force’s first two pilot training centers. Eglin has hosted preliminary training for all three services, while Luke will be the training base for the Air Force and certain international F-35A partners.
The initial strategy also set the rules for establishing the first four F-35A operating locations. These were:
Ops 1: an Active Duty three-squadron wing;
Ops 2: an Active Duty two-squadron wing in the Asia-Pacific region;
Ops 3: an Air National Guard one-squadron wing; and
Ops 4: an Active Duty two-squadron wing in Europe.
Ops 1 became Hill. The base is also site of the Air Force’s F-35A depot and is slated to receive its full complement of 72 F-35A primary assigned aircraft, or PAA, by late 2018. There will be 24 airplanes in each of the three squadrons. The base’s Active Duty 388th Fighter Wing will own the jets and maintain them with airmen from Air Force Reserve Command’s 419th Fighter Wing. This is the classic association partnership they have today with Hill’s F-16s. The F-16s are all scheduled to depart the base by spring 2018.
According to Hill officials, for USAF to declare IOC in the latter part of 2016, it must have the following: between 12 and 24 combat-configured F-35As with enough pilots, maintainers, and spare parts to conduct sustained operations. The F-35A must also be able to perform close air support, interdiction, and suppression or destruction of enemy air defenses in a contested environment.
For Ops 2, the Air Force in August 2014 announced it had selected Eielson AFB, Alaska, as its preferred site. The base is home to the 354th Fighter Wing, flying F-16s in the aggressor role today.
By the spring of 2016, Air Force leaders are expected to announce the final record of decision on whether to bed down 48 F-35A PAA, with 24 in each of the two squadrons, at Eielson. That decision will only come after USAF completes a congressionally mandated environmental impact assessment of basing the new aircraft there.
If the service leadership gives the green light, Eielson would become the first F-35A operating location in the US military’s Pacific area of responsibility. It would receive its first F-35As in 2019.
Regarding Ops 3, the Air Force leadership announced its selection of Burlington in December 2013 at the same time it released the news on Hill. Burlington’s 158th Fighter Wing is expected to receive its 18 F-35A PAA for its one flying squadron over a one-year period starting in May 2020, said Vermont National Guard officials. The jets would replace the unit’s F-16s. The wing operates and maintains its F-16s together with the Active Duty 495th Fighter Group, Det. 134, under an active association. That relationship is set to continue for the F-35A mission.
“We look forward to the arrival of the F-35,” Brig. Gen. Richard N. Harris Jr., the Vermont National Guard’s assistant adjutant general-air, told Air Force Magazine. “It will be a significant milestone.”
In August 2014, a group of local residents opposed to the basing decision filed an appeal to the Vermont Supreme Court, arguing that the F-35s would create unbearable noise levels over parts of the Burlington area, rendering some nearby homes unsuitable for occupancy. As of early January, the court had not yet ruled on the appeal, but the Air Guard continued preparing for the new aircraft.
Up Next: Ops 5, 6, and 7
“We are pressing ahead because we believe that Burlington is a good location and that the concerns raised will not keep the unit from converting to the F-35,” said Lt. Gen. Stanley E. Clarke III, ANG director, in an interview. “Honestly, I have been on the ramp where F-35s and F-16s were flying at the same time in the pattern. When I closed my eyes and tried to distinguish one from the other—and I have got over 2,000 hours in the F-16—I couldn’t tell the difference.”
Clarke also said he believes Burlington could commence F-35A operations “faster” than the current schedule, if the Air Force leadership desired it, due to the experience of the Air Guardsmen there and their established partnership with Active Duty airmen.
As for Ops 4, stationing 48 F-35A PAA at Lakenheath should deepen the close military relationship between the US and Britain and offer new opportunities for collaboration, said the Pentagon in its Jan. 8 basing announcement. The Defense Secretary is the decision authority for overseas basing.
“From the beginning, the United States and the United Kingdom have been side-by-side on F-35 program development,” said Col. Robert G. Novotny, commander of Lakenheath’s 48th Fighter Wing, on the release of the news. “This is about continuing to work together with our allies and partners to ensure a secure future for Europe.”
The F-35A mission will bring an additional 1,200 US military personnel to Lakenheath, according to a Pentagon statement.
The Air Force’s forthcoming fleet basing strategy will pick up where the first one left off—beddowns starting in the early 2020s. It’s expected to address at least the Ops 5, Ops 6, and Ops 7 locations, said Pohlmeier. There will be no training sites in this next set of locations, since there is “quite a bit of capacity” for the time being with the F-35A training fleet, given the six squadrons standing up at Luke and the one at Eglin, he said.
Eventually, however, the Air Force will require about 12 F-35A training squadrons in all to support the fleet size on the books, said AETC officials.
Luke’s 56th Fighter Wing is slated to field 144 F-35As across its six squadrons to support training for Air Force pilots and their counterparts in partner air forces. Eglin’s 33rd Fighter Wing operates a squadron of 24 F-35A PAA, along with some Marine Corps F-35Bs, Navy F-35Cs, and international partner F-35As and F-35Bs.
While the Air Force’s first basing strategy was more heavily weighted on the Active Duty side, the coming iterations should show more balance across the service’s three components, said Pohlmeier.
“When you field a brand-new weapon,” he said, there is an understanding that the Active Duty will manage training and “the first tranche of tactics, techniques, and procedures, and for working out all of the kinks.” Consequently, the Active forces will have a “disproportionate” amount of the first aircraft “in the early stages of a large beddown.” The “overhead part of the equation is pretty much past us,” he added. “Moving forward, [the basing] is going to look much more proportional” among the components.
Air Force Reserve Command anticipates the new basing strategy will include its first F-35A ops base, said Maj. Gen. Derek P. Rydholm, who oversees AFRC plans, programs, and requirements. “We fully expect that,” he said in an interview. “If the Active Duty already got Ops 1 and we have already identified Burlington [for the Air National Guard], … the Air Force leadership understands that we have got to now start to look at the first of the Air Force Reserve Command locations that will get those airplanes.”
Current planning indicates AFRC would get its first F-35As “in the early 2020s,” he said. AFRC wings assigned F-35As likely will get between 18 and 24 of them, he said.
ANG Director Clarke said he hoped the Guard would be included in the next strategy, too, since his component “currently flies the oldest fleet” in the overall USAF inventory.
“We feel like, as we have to divest more legacy airplanes in the Air National Guard inventory, … we would be included in any of these future ops beddown locations,” he said. “We think all of our units compete very well for that.”
He noted, for example, that the Guard conducts 100 percent of the air defense mission over the continental United States.
“There is no doubt that Air Force senior leadership is confident in the capabilities of the Air National Guard, now and in the future. … And when they are making beddown decisions about the F-35, without hesitancy, they will pick an Air National Guard location to do that,” he said.
Beyond those items, Air Force officials are withholding the details of the new basing strategy at this point. “We are sensitive about getting too far out ahead because there are a lot of things in the decision hierarchy, so we do not want to tie our leadership’s hands,” said Pohlmeier.
Location, Location …
The Air Force will continue to apply the same transparent and repeatable process it has used to date to choose F-35 basing locations. First, it will draw from its pool of data on all of its bases to identify sites best aligned with the attributes laid out for each location in the basing strategy.
Next, it will survey each candidate location, looking at details such as what it would cost to bring the F-35 to the base, including infrastructure changes, and what effect the new mission would have on the local community and environment.
Armed with that data, USAF leaders will then pick a preferred location. Once the environmental assessment is done, they will issue the record of decision to codify the choice.
The findings of an environmental impact study, coupled with public feedback, can have a big effect on the outcome of a basing decision. For example, at Eglin, the Air Force opted against basing up to 107 F-35s there due to concerns about the noise impact on a local community. Instead, it capped the number of F-35s that could operate from there at 59.
Once a basing decision is final, the process shifts to bedding down the aircraft. This involves synchronizing the brick-and-mortar upgrades at the installation with the arrival of the F-35s and the departure of the jets they’re replacing, and the availability of maintainers and pilots trained on the new airplanes so the host unit can start operating with them.
“You are not going to get a whole wing’s worth of airplanes tomorrow,” said AFRC’s Rydholm. “So there is a very delicate balance” to ensure that a huge number of pilots and maintainers aren’t in place early, waiting around to fly or work on a handful of jets.
The Air Force’s goal is to have a Total Force association at every F-35 base. Such associations refer to a partnership between an Active Duty unit and a reserve component unit, with one of them owning the aircraft and the other providing additional manpower to help fly and maintain them. That may not be possible in every case, said Pohlmeier. Resources are limited.
“If you do not have an association now with legacy aircraft, and then you convert to a new aircraft, there would be a bill associated with standing up a brand-new association,” he said. “But I can tell you the Air Force desires to associate wherever practical.”
The advantages of associations are clear. For example, at Burlington, pairing experienced Air National Guard maintainers with junior Active Duty airmen of the associate unit will help quickly build a larger seasoned workforce of F-35 techs. They can then move on to where the Air Force needs them as more F-35A bases stand up, said ANG’s Clarke.
“That is something that I have added to the conversation,” he said. “We are going to get a head start on cranking out experienced members of the Regular Air Force from that location.”
At Luke, for example, Reservists support their Active Duty counterparts with F-16 training. An association for the F-35A is in the works, said Air Education and Training Command officials.
“We anticipate that we will have a very strong presence in the F-35 training as we move forward,” said AFRC’s planning director Rydholm. That support will include training pilots of nations that buy F-35As through foreign military sales.
Pohlmeier said he thinks the biggest challenge with the F-35 beddown has to do with the training squadrons because they’ll be integrated with partner nations’ airmen and airplanes to an unprecedented degree.
At Luke, for example, a single squadron could comprise Air Force aircraft, pilots, and maintainers, plus Australian pilots and trainers, he said.
“I think that is really unique, and the best we can tell, we are doing a good job to orchestrate that process.”
Australia is set to start F-35A pilot training at Luke this summer, followed by Italy and Norway in 2016, according to AETC.
Another issue is getting maintainers trained on the F-35A and ready for their units in time. “Right now, across the Air Force, there is a shortage of combat air forces maintenance personnel,” said Rydholm. “That is a huge issue and we are in discussions and negotiations where we may very well try to help the Active Duty as they move out of those F-16s at Hill and into the F-35.”
ANG’s Clarke said he thinks more than one course of action is needed to deal with this issue. “You can’t do this entirely with just people coming just out of basic military training and sending them to tech school,” he said. “You have got to have a combination of experienced maintainers and new people who come onboard at the same time in a Regular Air Force unit.”
Congress’ decision to prevent the Air Force from retiring the A-10 fleet in Fiscal 2015—and swinging freed-up A-10 maintainers over to the F-35A—may compound this issue. At the end of 2014, Air Force officials were still measuring the impact, if any, this decision would have.
At Hill, USAF expects to spend about $100 million on some 36 infrastructure projects for the F-35A mission. The work is scheduled to conclude in 2019, said base officials.
At Burlington, while officials don’t expect to add new hangars or facilities, there will still be upgrades to existing infrastructure to support the F-35As.
Luke is scheduled for some $57 million in infrastructure improvements, including a $47 million F-35A academic training center that opened in October.
At Edwards, site of developmental testing and operational testing for the F-35A, F-35B, and F-35C, the Air Force has already invested some $28 million on various improvement projects. These include extending a ramp; renovating offices, a hangar, and work areas; and constructing a new munitions maintenance facility and warehouse. Edwards will eventually host a force of 34 F-35s of all three variants.
Among the construction projects at Nellis is the $20.6 million maintenance hangar completed in March 2014. The Nevada base will host 36 F-35As at full strength: 24 for the Air Force Weapons School and 12 for the operational flight testing.
At Eglin, home of DOD’s initial F-35 schoolhouse, there have been more than $350 million in facility improvements so far to support the training mission for the Air Force, Marine Corps, Navy, and international partners. Among them were adding hangars, dormitories, academic training facilities, a dining facility, taxiway, and an apron. Another $55 million in US-funded projects is planned through 2020, including more dorms, another dining facility, a new headquarters facility, and additional academic training facilities.
Eglin, which had been training F-35A, F-35B, and F-35C pilots and maintainers, is undergoing a transition. The Marine Corps will complete relocating F-35B training to MCAS Beaufort, S.C., this summer, and international F-35A training is moving to Luke. This will leave Air Force F-35A and Marine Corps and Navy F-35C pilot training at Eglin. The Florida base will also remain the primary training site for Air Force, Marine Corps, Navy, and foreign air force F-35 maintainers, said Eglin and AETC officials.
The F-35 beddown process is far from complete, but when the job is done, the stealth jet aircraft will be hosted at Active, Guard, and Reserve installations across the United States, Europe, and the Pacific.