F-35 Squadrons in Alaska Shift to Full Operations
By Amanda Miller
U.S. Indo-Pacific Command has two new F-35 squadrons at its disposal in Alaska just as “quite a bit of action” has taken place in the combatant command’s area of responsibility and the “advanced threats” there are becoming “more lethal,” said the squadrons’ wing commander, Col. David J. Berkland.
Berkland’s 354th Fighter Wing at Eielson Air Force Base received the 54th of its 54 F-35s in April, giving Alaska—when also counting the F-22s at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson—the “largest concentration of fifth-gen, combat-coded air power in the world” within its borders, Berkland told AFA’s President, retired Lt. Gen. Bruce Wright, in an Air & Space Warfighters in Action virtual conversation Aug. 10.
Berkland said the wing’s priority now is to “shift ourselves into full operational capability to conduct agile combat employment operations throughout the Pacific AOR at austere locations.”
Unlike a typical wing assigned to an Air Force major command, the 354th Fighter Wing—with its motto “We’re ready to go at 50 below”—belongs to the joint INDOPACOM combatant command, Berkland explained. Situated at Eielson, “we can really, in a single fighter sortie, range to just about any AOR in the Northern Hemisphere pretty easily.”
In terms of “advanced threats” posed by the Chinese military’s technology, he said, “They’re becoming more lethal, and they’re becoming more lethal at further and further ranges in terms of the ability of an air defense system to detect, target, and then engage our joint forces.”
Without going into detail about already “deploying forces throughout” the INDOPACOM AOR, Berkland said the goal of the wing’s “dynamic force employment events is to ensure a free and open Into-Pacific.”
Since F-35s began to arrive at Eielson in 2020, a “combat-focused mentality” has taken shape among the pilots whose experience ranges from new pilots who “did a lot of virtual reality-type simulated flying” in their training—“and they have performed brilliantly, to be honest,”—to others who have “a couple thousand hours in a different airframe, Berkland said
“And those airframes run the gamut of fighter aircraft across the Air Force. We get people in from the A-10, the Strike Eagle, the F-15C, obviously the F-16 as well.”
Their variety of backgrounds has proven to be both a challenge for the F-35 community—“because to some degree we have baggage from a different aircraft and a different culture”—and a strength because of the ability “to take the best of all those cultures, take the best of all those tactics and techniques and procedures, and blend them into what we’re doing with the F-35.”
As more F-35 natives have started flowing in, Lt. Col. Ryan Worrell, commander of the 356th Fighter Squadron, said “the community has really developed and grown to point where it is sustaining its own culture now” and the focus “is less about trying to determine what the culture is and more about bringing new people in.”
Transitioning from the F-16 to the F-35 was like going from driving a 1969 Mustang to a Tesla, Worrell said. The degree of automation has freed him up to fly less and think more.
The Mustang “makes a lot of great noise, and it still does the job extremely well.” The F-35, on the other hand, with its sensors and automation, involves less “driving the car” and more “managing the decisions that you’re making.
“I’m no longer running the radar. I’m no longer trying to manage where my radar is looking to get the correct aspect on something,” Worrell said.
In an exercise over the ocean, for example, when a tanker is lost, “you just lost a hundred thousand pounds of gas … and so you’re constantly involved in continuing to solve that problem. And because it’s less about specifically flying the aircraft and managing the sensors and more about making those decisions, you have the brain space to actually start to work through that.”
At the same time that standing up the new squadrons has brought together a broad mix of aviators, flying the F-35 has also built bridges “across services and across alliances,” Worrell said. “We actually had the Australian F-35s up here, and we flew as mixed formations with them—so two of them and two of us in a four-ship … all doing the same tactics from our tactics manuals, and it was incredible to be a part of that.”
The same effect played out in “similar integrations” with Marine Corps F-35Bs, he said.
“When you start to put more F-35s together from different communities, it doesn’t matter where you come from … you’re able to speak the same language and execute the same tactics together.”
Brown Tours PACAF Amid Dueling Exercises
By Abraham Mahshie
Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Charles Q. Brown Jr. had hardly left the Indo-Pacific theater before China flew a joint bomber and fighter mission with U.S. partner Thailand. In nearby Indonesia, the U.S. concluded exercise Garuda Shield alongside Australia, Japan, and Singapore.
Brown’s first trip back to the theater where he commanded Pacific Air Forces from 2018 to 2020 comes at a time of heightened U.S. competition with China. Brown kicked off his trip at Travis Air Force Base, Calif., before visiting Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Hawaii; Andersen Air Force Base, Guam; Kadena, Air Base, Japan; Osan and Kunsan Air Bases, South Korea; Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska; and U.S. partners and allies in Singapore and the Philippines from Aug. 4 to 13.
“In order to protect and enhance our collective international security, we need to focus on purposefully fostering our relationships,” Brown told senior enlisted leaders Aug. 1 at a gathering of 65 nations outside Washington, D.C.
Brown reflected on the relationships he built at the Air Command and Staff College at Maxwell Air Force Base, Ala., in 1997. His former classmates included the current air chiefs of Japan, Mexico, and Israel.
“Those relationships are so important, relationships you build at the senior level, and relationships you build at more junior levels, and how they overlap in some form or fashion and offer the chance to work together,” Brown said. “The emerging challenges and threats of today require the weight of effort from all our nation’s best.”
Just days after delivering the message of nurturing long-standing relationships, Brown was on a plane for the Indo-Pacific to rekindle some of his own.
Meanwhile, China soon began live-fire exercises around Taiwan and launched a major exercise with the Thai Air Force. Thailand’s joint training exercise with China comes despite a close and long-standing U.S. basing relationship with Thailand and a June visit by Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III.
Brown’s Pacific Swing
Brown set the stage for his Pacific swing Aug. 4 at Travis, the largest air mobility wing, and what he called the “Gateway to the West” for its role in defense of a free and open Indo-Pacific.
At Hickam, Brown discussed the value of strengthening relationships with allies and partners, and 15th Wing Airmen highlighted how they work with regional partners to integrate joint operations. As he spoke, 14 nations, hosted by Indonesia and the United States, were conducting exercise Garuda Shield 2022.
Garuda Shield welcomed for the first time Australia, Singapore, and Japan alongside Canada, France, India, Malaysia, New Zealand, South Korea, the United Kingdom, and growing U.S. Pacific partners Papua New Guinea and Timor-Leste. While primarily a land and sea exercise, this year’s expanded “Super Garuda Shield” also included air defense exercises, airborne operations, and an airfield seizure exercise.
By Aug. 7, Brown toured Andersen Air Force Base and Northwest Field, Guam, which have undergone new construction as America’s westernmost power projection point.
At each stop, Brown held an all-call with Airmen to discuss the Air Force’s role in the National Defense Strategy, to talk about resiliency, and to urge Airmen to innovate. In small group settings, he had breakfasts and lunches with Airmen to gather their feedback and to provide mentorship, according to a readout provided to Air Force Magazine.
At Kadena Air Base on Aug. 11, Brown said Airman must exploit the air domain through mission control and empowerment of Airmen.
“Successful operations and combat support in a contested environment demand maximum delegation, trust, and empowerment of Airmen before conflict starts,” he said at the all-call. Brown also honored Master Sgt. Jason Yunker for his innovative work on the Versatile Integrating Partner Equipment Refueling (VIPER) kit to refuel aircraft in austere locations.
In South Korea, Brown visited both Osan and Kunsan Air Bases on Aug. 12, where in 2007-2008, he served as 8th Fighter Wing commander. Brown then flew north to Eielson Air Force Base. Details were not available about his Eielson trip, and the Air Force chief held no public meetings before his partner-building trips to Singapore and the Philippines.
Brown was in the city state of Singapore Aug. 7-10, one of the strongest U.S. partners in Southeast Asia, to reaffirm the strong bilateral defense partnership and to discuss ways to enhance cooperation. There, he met with the Singapore minister of defense, chief of the defense force, and chief of the Air Force. He participated in a National Day Parade and was given Singapore’s military Meritorious Service Medal.
“Strong bilateral relationships like that of the U.S. and Singapore are cultivated over time and are based on communication and transparency and shared values and interests,” Brown said, according to an Air Force press release.
The United States and Singapore celebrated the 30th anniversary of exercise Commando Sling in June. Brown and Singapore’s leaders discussed the planned consolidation of Singapore’s Air Force F-16 and future F-35 fighter jet training detachments in the United States.
Brown’s final stop was the Philippines, where a new government has signaled its willingness to cooperate militarily with China. Brown’s visit was consistent with a Defense Department hope to deepen the U.S.-Filipino defense partnership after strained relations under ex-president Rodrigo Duterte.
In Manila, Brown met with the Chief of Staff of the Philippines Armed Forces and the Air Force command general to discuss ways to deepen cooperation. The Philippines is among the nations with whom China has acted aggressively on the high seas and maintains a maritime dispute. The Philippines, nonetheless, is deeply dependent on China economically.
“The U.S.-Philippine alliance is strong; we support a resilient and independent Philippines with the capability to protect its sovereignty and defend its security interests on its own terms,” Brown said, according to a press release.
The Air Force Chief of Staff told Philippines defense leaders that the United States would support Philippine Air Force modernization requirements. Brown is expected to brief members of the media at the end of August to provide further details about the objectives and accomplishments of his Pacific trip.