Alaskan Delegation

Alaska Delegation posses in front of an F-35 on Monday in Fort Worth, Texas. Courtesy Angelynn DelCueto

U.S. Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan, and Congressman Don Young, all R-Alaska, toured Lockheed Martin’s F-35 assembly plant in Fort Worth, Texas, on Monday, along with a group of military and community leaders from Interior Alaska. The group got to see the first F-35 aircraft that will eventually be stationed at Eielson Air Force Base starting in spring 2020.

In response to concerns about the cost of sustaining the F-35 fleet, which were raised in a Government Accountability Office report released Nov. 13, both Murkowski and Suillivan said that efforts are being made to reduce the cost of maintaining the aircraft but acknowledged that it was an area that needs more attention.

The F-35A Joint Strike Fighter is a fifth generation stealth aircraft capable of air-to-air and air-to-ground combat, electronic warfare and delivering nuclear weapons. By December 2021, 54 F-35s are scheduled to have arrived at Eielson, along with 1,300 personnel. The first of two combat F-35 squadrons was reactivated in October, and the first aircrafts are scheduled to begin arriving in April.

During the Monday visit to Lockheed Martin, the Alaska delegation toured the production line, was briefed on the F-35 program, and learned about the aircraft’s capabilities. They also signed the bulkhead of an Alaska-bound F-35 currently in production.

Specifically, the delegation heard about updates being made to improve the aircraft’s maintenance and performance, and how it provides “critical advantages over America’s adversaries,” according to a news release.

Sullivan explained that the tour was arranged by Lockheed Martin and the U.S. Air Force, as a celebration of a “milestone.”

“It was more than just a tour, it was a serious briefing and an important milestone,” Sullivan said.

“What you can see, as you’re going through the assembly line, is each aircraft actually had (a label for) where it was going. There were several, as we were going through this assembly line, that were destined for Eielson.”

Sullivan said that those slated for Eielson are “on schedule” and “already paid for.” Sullivan also emphasized the importance of the Fairbanks and North Pole community members who were invited and flown down to Texas on a National Guard plane. Amongst the group were Fairbanks North Star Borough Mayor Bryce Ward, Sen. John Coghill, Rep. Tammie Wilson, members of the Fairbanks Tiger Team, local business owners and others. He cited the strong community support for the military in general in Alaska and called the invited group “a great mix of Fairbanksans and North Pole residents, who, in my view, if you look at the last 20 years, were relentlessly trying to make this day happen.”

“That actually makes a really important impact on where services end up deciding where to base military forces,” he said. “We just take it for granted — it doesn’t matter what political party you’re in. Nationally, it’s not always like that. There are a lot of communities that aren’t thrilled to have more military there; our state is not one of those, which is great.”

Likewise Murkowski said that the invited group was a “reflection of community support” for the military.

“There has been an extrodinary group of individuals that have made sure that the message is loud and clear as to the military strategic advantage that Interior Alaska offers, especially Eielson and Wainwright and Greely and Clear,” she said.

In a statement released via the news release, Young focused on the economic benefits that the new aircraft will bring to Alaska.

“What Lockheed Martin has accomplished with the F-35 is good news not only for our country’s continued advancements in military technology, but for the State of Alaska, where some of the jets on display today will soon end up,” said Congressman Young via the release. “The arrival of these jets will also provide a significant economic benefit to our state, and I look forward to welcoming the pilots and mechanics, and their families to the Great State of Alaska.”

Construction activity relating to the basing of the 54 new aircraft at Eielson has created an estimated 2,300 new construction jobs and is anticipated to generate roughly $450 million in overall economic output from 2016-20.

However, the Nov. 13 report published by the Government Accountability Office raises concerns about the vast cost of sustaining the F-35 fleet.

The report states that the F-35 is the department of defense’s “most costly weapon system,” with the purchase cost expected to exceed $406 billion and sustainment costs expected to cost more than $1 trillion. As an example of the skyrocketing costs of maintaining the fleet, the report states “between the program’s 2014 and its 2015 estimates, the costs of initial spare parts over the life cycle increased by $447 million.”

It notes that the department will need to reduce sustainment costs of the aircraft by by 43% per aircraft per year in order for the military services to operate the F-35 as planned. These concerns have been raised by the government accountability office in the past.

“While there is little doubt that the F-35 brings unique capabilities to the U.S. military, DOD faces significant challenges in sustaining a growing fleet,” the report states.

When asked how this issue might be solved, Sullivan said it will be a combination of congressional actions and the department of defense finding ways to reduce costs — but he added that Lockheed Martin are also responsible.

“I actually think it’s on the manufacturer,” he said. “As they produce more of these aircraft, the cost per aircraft goes down, which I think is important. … As these new aircraft hit the fleet, the supply chain dynamics are always a challenge. with an aircraft of this kind of sophistication, I think it’s been particularly a challenge. I do think they’re starting to get their arms around it.”

Sullivan said that the report was “important and helpful” and that the readiness committee, which he chairs, will continue to press Lockheed Martin and the Air Force.

“They assured us that they were getting a handle on this. And there are examples with other aircraft. The F-32s and F-16s, when they initially were deployed in the fleet, you had similar problems that I think the Air Force and the manufacturer can get in front of,” Sullivan said. “For Eielson, they talked about how they were going to try and address this by having the parts and supply system already in place at Eielson as these aircraft are starting to show up.”

Similarly, Murkowski said that, during the tour of the assembly plant, the group was informed on “what has been done over the course of this program to bring down the costs of the F-35.”

“We had a very good exchange, back and forth,” Murkowski said. “Everything, from what is the status of availability of parts to a question that was raised about what level of testing has been done in cold weather environments and what degree of cold are you testing in. There was a lot of opportunity to focus hard and ask appropriate questions. The GAO report was not mentioned specifically — and I have not read that full report — but I think it was enunciated clearly that the efforts to bring down the sustainment costs is an ongoing thing that DOD continues to work on and will continue to work on, while making sure that we have a superlative aircraft in the sky and giving us that critical advantage.”

The report also brought up concerns over the lack of available spare parts for the F-35s, stating that spare parts shortages are keeping the aircraft grounded more often than expected.

“From May to November 2018, F-35s across the fleet were unable to fly about 30 percent of the time due to lack of parts,” the report states.

Contact staff writer Alistair Gardiner at 459-7575. Follow him on Twitter: @FDNMoutdoors.

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