A U.S. Air Force F-35A Lightning II assigned to the 495th Fighter Squadron lands on the flightline at Royal Air Force Lakenheath, Dec. 15, 2021. The arrival of the 5th-generation aircraft at the Liberty Wing has been planned since 2015, marking its placement within the United Kingdom a critical component for training and combat readiness due to airspace and F-35 program partnership. Senior Airman Koby Saunders
Photo Caption & Credits

RAF Lakenheath Becomes USAF’s First European Base to Get F-35s

Jan. 21, 2022

By Abraham Mahshie

RAF Lakenheath on Dec. 15 became the first European base to receive a U.S. F-35A Lightning II, six years after plans for the delivery were announced as part of an eventual basing of two squadrons of the fifth-generation aircraft. 

A 2015 decision to close RAF Mildenhall and realign its missions led to the plan to base 48 F-35As at Lakenheath, with deliveries to start in 2020. COVID-19 and base infrastructure improvements forced the timeline to slip, but U.S. Air Forces in Europe still got its first F-35 before the end of 2021. 

“The Valkyries are leading our F-35 integration across Europe,” said USAFE Commander Gen. Jeffrey L. Harrigian in a statement. 

The 495th Fighter Squadron was nicknamed the Valkyries in 2020 for the female figure in Norse mythology who chooses who will live or die in battle. 

“We’ve come a long way, and now we’re extending our reach as a coalition force and what we will accomplish together,” Harrigian said. 

RAF Lakenheath’s selection was based on existing infrastructure and combined training opportunities with the United Kingdom. The U.K. is critical for training and combat readiness for Air Forces in Europe due to its participation in the F-35 program and excellent airspace, noted USAFE. 

The new F-35 squadron will consist of 60 personnel and 27 F-35s, delivered in a phased approach. Lt. Col. Ian D. McLaughlin assumed command of the 495th on Oct. 1. New range infrastructure and training are projected to be in place by 2022, Harrigian previously said. 

Speaking to reporters at a media roundtable at AFA’s Air, Space & Cyber Conference in September, Harrigian highlighted the number of European partners and allies choosing the F-35. 

“We’ve already got some pretty good plans as we start thinking about how we leverage that capability, particularly with many of our partners that already have F-35s in the theater,” he said. “I really think it’ll be a truly important step as we continue to demonstrate the importance that the F-35 has baked into it from an interoperability perspective.” 

The F-35 is the high-end fighter of choice for the United Kingdom, Norway, Italy, the Netherlands, Denmark, and Israel. Switzerland announced in June that it will purchase the fighter, and non-NATO partner Finland ordered 64 of the jets Dec. 10 to replace its aging F/A-18 fleet.                                   

Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III, left, congratulates U.S. Navy Adm. Christopher W. Grady as the 12th Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, after delivering the oath of office at a swearing in ceremony at the Pentagon in Arlington, Va., Dec. 20, 2021. Chad McNeeley/DOD

Grady Sworn in as Vice Chairman 

By Abraham Mahshie                         

The Pentagon confirmed Dec. 20, 2021, that Adm. Christopher W. Grady was sworn in as the 12th Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

The swearing-in fills a monthlong vacancy following the retirement of Air Force Gen. John E. Hyten, whose last day was Nov. 19. The Senate confirmed Grady on Dec. 16 after his nomination testimony Dec. 8. 

Pentagon Press Secreta ry John F. Kirby said that among Grady’s duties will be leading the Joint Requirements Oversight Council and serving as a senior member of the Nuclear Weapons Council. 

Grady served as commander of U.S. Fleet Forces Command/U.S. Naval Forces Northern Command since 2018. In that role, he oversaw the naval leg of the nuclear triad. 

At his confirmation hearing, Grady was asked to address one aspect of China’s military growth—its rapid nuclear buildup. 

“I think that China’s breakout is, as [U.S. Strategic Command] Adm. [Charles A.] Richard has called it, is, indeed, spectacular and, indeed, breathtaking,” Grady said, calling for deterrence against both China and nuclear-armed Russia. “Modernization of the nuclear triad will be the underpinning of that deterrence effort against two nuclear competitors.” 

MacDill is the Next KC-46 Base

By Greg Hadley

The Air Force selected MacDill Air Force Base, Fla., as its next preferred location for the KC-46 on Dec. 21, 2021, setting up the Florida installation to receive 24 of the new aerial tankers in the coming years.

The KC-46 will replace Active-duty KC-135s currently at MacDill with the 6th Air Refueling Wing, the Air Force said in a statement. 

“This basing action and the KC-46A Pegasus coming to MacDill is representative of the commitment to air refueling and air power and what this does for our country,” Col. Benjamin R. Jonsson, 6th ARW commander, said at an event celebrating the announcement. “So to be able to do this for decades to come, it shows the importance of that refueling capability and what it means for our nation and our nation’s defense. … We are excited for this big news at MacDill.” 

A KC-46A Pegasus refuels on the flight line at MacDill Air Force Base, Fla. Oct. 25, 2021. The KC-46A represents the beginning of a new era of aerial refueling having greater refueling, cargo and aeromedical evacuation capabilities compared to the KC-135 Stratotanker. The aircraft will soon undergo operational tests and evaluations on the way to initial operating capability. Airman 1st Class Joshua Hastings

MacDill’s selection comes over Fairchild Air Force Base, Wash., the other candidate location announced by the Air Force in May. A final basing decision is still forthcoming, dependent on the results of an environmental impact analysis, which is expected to be completed in the fall of 2023. Fairchild, tabbed as a “reasonable alternative” to MacDill, will also undergo an environmental impact analysis. 

“The KC-46 mission factors [are] considered central to what our partners do every day,” Rep. Kathy Castor (D-Fla.), whose congressional district includes MacDill, said at the announcement event, adding that she was “thrilled.” 

“They were looking at the capacity of MacDill. They were looking at environmental issues, and they were looking at support from the community—how do we support our military families,” Castor said.                                                                                                          

Pentagon Releases New Rules to Control “Extremist” Activity

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Pentagon Press Secretary John F. Kirby briefs media during a press briefing at the Pentagon, Nov. 10, 2021. DOD photo by Air Force Staff Sgt. Brittany A. Chase.

By Abraham Mahshie

Just shy of a year after the Jan. 6 Capitol riot, the Defense Department released a detailed report defining what constitutes extremist activity and recapping DOD efforts to date to reduce and prevent extremism within the ranks

The department will not make a list of prohibited groups, but DOD has defined a two-part test for commanders to assess a violation: Does the act constitute extremist activity; and did the service member “actively participate?”

New regulations go much further than past guidance in defining extremist activities and even state that a “like” of an extremist comment on social media constitutes a violation. 

“The physical act of liking is, of course, advocating,” Pentagon Press Secretary John F. Kirby told reporters Dec. 20—”advocating for extremist groups, certainly, [or] groups that advocate violating the oath to the Constitution, overturning of the government, terrorist activities.” 

The new instruction includes a glossary defining terms such as “liking” and “sharing” on social media along with platform-specific terms such as “re-tweeting.” The term “widespread unlawful discrimination” is also in the glossary, defined as extensive discrimination of individuals or groups on the basis of race, gender identity, sexual orientation, and other factors, which deprives those persons of constitutional or other rights, such as civil rights and fair housing. 

Kirby made clear that the department will not actively monitor the social media accounts of service members. He said extremist ideologies or a membership in an extremist group are not in themselves violations. Membership in an extremist group, however, will make it hard for a service member not to violate a regulation. 

“In order to prove your membership, you’re probably going to run afoul of one of these criteria sets,” he said. 

Taking part in extremist activities, such as violent protests, fundraising, or otherwise promoting the extremist group are some of the prohibited actions. 

Upon taking office, Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III established a Countering Extremist Activities Working Group and took four immediate actions that included calling for an extremism standdown across the department. The event gave service members the opportunity to discuss the growing problem and solutions. Among the requests from the force was greater clarity on what constituted extremist activity. 

Revising the DOD instruction that defines what constitutes extremist activity was one result, while adjusting recruiting and separation briefing activities was another. Training and education within the service will come next, Kirby said. 

Other next steps suggested by the working group include reforms of military justice and policy, investigative and screening processes, training and education, and the department’s Insider Threat program. 

Austin also commissioned a new study on extremism in the ranks, but no further details were provided.

 Kirby said DOD does not have a comprehensive way of tracking cases of extremism but in the past year found that fewer than 100 individuals violated regulations on extremist activity. The six service members who participated in the Capitol riot were likely among the 100. 

Potential violations of the prohibition on extremist activity will be considered like any other violation, Kirby said, on a “very case-specific” basis.                                                                                      

Oklahoma ANG Member Awarded Distinguished Flying Cross

Retired Lt. Gen. Harry Wyatt III, left, former Director of the Air National Guard, presents Lt. Col. Mike Coloney, 125th Fighter Squadron director of operations, the Distinguished Flying Cross Dec. 5, 2021. The actions Coloney took on April 30, 2018 over the skies of Afghanistan saved countless lives and earned him the Distinguished Flying Cross. Airman 1st Class Allen Tyler/ANG

By Amy Hudson

An Oklahoma Air National Guard Member received the Distinguished Flying Cross—the nation’s fourth-highest award for valor in combat—earlier this month for his actions during a Taliban attack in Afghanistan in 2018. 

On April 30, 2018, Lt. Col. Michael Coloney was assigned to the 125th Expeditionary Fighter Squadron when more than 80 Taliban fighters attacked U.S. and Afghan Special Forces who were clearing a village in the Kapisa province. 

The F-16 pilot was already airborne on another previously assigned mission when he was immediately retasked to provide air support to the U.S. and Afghan troops as the Taliban launched rockets and grenades and shot small arms and high-powered machine guns at them. 

He worked with combat controllers on the ground for approximately five hours, employing GPS-guided bombs and conducting high-angle strafe attacks on the Taliban fighters, sometimes less than 30 meters from friendly forces. 

There were 11 casualties that day, including one American Soldier who was killed in action, but Coloney’s fire power enabled the friendly forces to escape the enemy without further loss of life. 

“It was his exemplary skill, outstanding airmanship, and devotion to duty under extremely hazardous conditions that allowed Coloney to save the lives of so many U.S. and Afghan Special Forces troops that day, for which he earned the Distinguished Flying Cross,” according to an Air National Guard release.       

CORRECTION: The original story cited an incorrect cost to rebuild Offutt Air Force Base, Neb. New estimates are between $1.1 and $1.2 Billion.

Cost of Rebuilding Offutt May Top $1 Billion, Congressman Says

By Greg Hadley

Inflation, imperfect early estimates, and rising construction costs associated with the COVID-19 pandemic have combined to significantly raise the expected cost of rebuilding Offutt Air Force Base from the floods of 2019, said the Nebraska lawmaker who represents the base in Congress.

In an interview, Rep. Don Bacon (R-Neb.)—a retired USAF brigadier general—said the new estimate is between $1.1 billion and $1.2 billion. That’s roughly $300 million more than currently authorized by Congress for the base’s reconstruction. 

It’s not the first time estimates of the rebuilding cost have risen. In the months after heavy rainfall and melting snow combined to flood the Missouri River and cover one-third of Offutt, including the runway, projections put the reconstruction at more than $650 million. That number then rose to $790 million, with the base’s commander warning it could go even higher.

There are multiple reasons for these increases, Bacon said, citing discussions he has had with base leaders.

“Those floods occurred in March [2019], and [Congress members] did the markup that spring. We sort of pushed the 55th Wing team to give us an estimate, because I wanted to get some of that money in the NDAA, and we ended up getting just under $800 million for Offutt through that 2019 markup. … But since then, between inflation and—I would say they did the best they could on the estimate—but as they scoped it out more, they realized it was going to be more. On top of that, you’ve got building costs going up,” Bacon said.

Knowing the base needed more funds to rebuild, Bacon and other Nebraska lawmakers pushed for an extra $100 million in the 2022 NDAA. That leaves, he said, “probably about $300 million more to do in the next year or two.”

Bacon declined to speculate on whether the cost might continue to rise in the years ahead, noting the extent of the destruction caused by the floods and the extra steps the Air Force is taking in rebuilding. But he did indicate that he would support whatever funding is necessary.

Contracted employees of the Environmental Restoration, LLC company deploy a spill containment boom around the Offutt Air Force Base fuel storage area as a precautionary measure March 18, 2019 following flooding of the southeast portion of the base. An increase in water levels of surrounding rivers and waterways caused by record-setting snowfall over the winter in addition to a large drop in air pressure caused widespread flooding across the state of Nebraska. Delanie Stafford/USAF

“I know the wing commander and the folks working. I know they’re doing their very best to get it right,” Bacon said. “I want to have a strong Offutt Air Force Base. STRATCOM headquarters is important to America’s security. They’re one of the biggest reconnaissance wings in the Air Force. It’s the second-largest employer for Nebraska. And I’ll just be blunt about it: I’m going to be a guardian angel for that base.”

Bacon has a long history with Offutt, dating back to the early days of his career as an Air Force officer. He first served at Offutt from 1986 to 1990, returned from 1998 to 2000, and went back once more as commander of the 55th Wing in 2011-2012. 

And as wing commander, Bacon witnessed firsthand a precursor to the 2019 floods. In 2011, floodwaters crept to within 50 feet of the base’s runway. During his time in the Air Force, he said, it became clear that the base was in need of repairs even before the destruction of 2019.

“I was a base commander at Ramstein, base commander at Offutt, worked at the Pentagon as a general. Offutt had been falling behind [in] repairs, I would say, for a while,” Bacon said. “So I see this as an opportunity to get Offutt to be state of the art. And I’d love to see it be the flagship for the United States Air Force.”

A member of Congress since 2017, Bacon said he’s been pleased to see that the 2019 floods haven’t affected Offutt’s operational readiness. But the real impact, he said, has been on morale. Because of damage to facilities in the flood, some units have had to relocate to a World War II-era bomber plant with questionable safety.

“A lot of these folks are operating in a place that was actually built as an airplane factory. The plan is to tear that building down at some point.,” Bacon said. “So you’ve got hundreds, I don’t know the exact number, but hundreds upon hundreds of people working in decrepit facilities, and so we need to get them out of there and get them a better work environment. I think it’s good for the morale. I think their work productivity will go up. And [if] we want to retain America’s best, give them a good working condition.”