Formerly a Russian territory, the state of Alaska which closely borders Russia by sea has been prioritised for deployment of the most capable U.S. Air Force fighter classes since the Cold War, and has hosted a growing contingent of fifth generation stealth fighters well within range of Russian airspace.
Only the United States and China have fifth generation fighters both in production and fielded at squadron level strength, namely the F-35 and J-20 aircraft, with the U.S. having previously produced the F-22 Raptor as a heavier twin engine counterpart to the F-35 before the program was terminated early in 2011.
The F-22 was first deployed to Alaska in 2007, less than two years after it entered service, with the Raptor fleet in the state at times growing to 24 aircraft – one seventh of all F-22s ever built. The F-35 fleet in Alaska was built up for two years from 2020, with the last of the 54 jets arriving at Eielson Air Force Base in April 2022. The newer fighter has more modern electronic warfare systems and avionics than the F-22 but is still years away from being fully operational, while the Raptor benefits from a superior flight performance and stealth capabilities and the ability to carry larger numbers of missiles.
The presence of Russian fighters and bombers off the Alaskan coast has at times strained the high maintenance F-22 fleet to intercept and tail them, with Russian Su-35 fighters and Tu-95 bombers deployed across the Bering Strait having far higher endurances and much lower operational costs than the American jets.
Four stealth fighter squadrons are currently deployed in Alaska altogether including two F-35 squadrons under 354th Fighter Wing at Eielson Air Force Base in central Alaska, and two F-22 squadrons deployed further south at at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson farther south. The extreme temperatures place a considerable strain on operations, providing experience which could prove highly useful in a conflict with Russia which is itself well accustomed to deploying combat jets from airfields where temperatures are far below freezing.
Commander of the 354th Fighter Wing Colonel David Berkland stated to this effect: “We have a motto that ‘we’re ready to go at 50 below.’ Today’s a beautiful 78 degree day, but if you come back in February, you’ll see that it’s a fairly ominous environment to maintain and support and operate airplanes.”
“All of our mission-important people that are out there on the flightline operating, clearing the snow and ice around the clock, they have to operate in those environments. They have to maintain vehicles in that environment, in those conditions, so it is a challenge… Before our pilots can fly here in the winter months,” Berkland said, “they have to go through Arctic survival school that is conducted here at Eielson, which is fantastic training, very sobering or chilling maybe would be the word because you’re out there for a couple of nights and surviving down to -50.” Some more novel changes included flying “with gloves that are cut off on the thumb and the two fingers,” which was needed to operate the F-35 because of its touchscreen features. Other officers highlighted that Alaksa’s position “kind of at the end of the logistics train for most of our parts and supplies” meant replenishing equipment could take considerably longer than it would for fighter units based elsewhere.
F-35As with the 354th Fighter Wing in Alaska
Beyond Alaska, the U.S. Air Force in 2021 deployed B-1B bombers to the Arctic from bases in Norway – to which Russia responded with a similar deployment by its MiG-31 interceptors. The considerable performance issues the B-1s suffered in the extreme climate, however, mean that such deployments may not be repeated. Where Norway in January became the first country to operate an exclusively fifth generation fighter fleet, and is currently the only one to do so with all F-16s replaced with F-35s, as F-35s form a growing portion of the American fleet the ability to operate them in more extreme climates is expected to be further tested.
The F-35 program has nevertheless been the target for widespread and intense criticism by both military and civilian officials, referred by the last holder of the post of Secretary of Defence under the Donald Trump administration, Christopher C. Miller, referring to the program as a “monster” the military had created and to the fighter itself as “a piece of…”. More recently in May House Armed Service Subcommittee on Readiness Chairman Congressman John Garamendi slammed the aircraft as one reliant on engines that “don’t work,” with a nearly two hour hearing on Capitol Hill seeing the fighter’s unsustainable maintenance needs and operational costs particularly harshly criticised.