FAIRBANKS -- In the latest sign that the Air Force plans to station four dozen of the nation's newest fighter jets in Interior Alaska, the Obama administration is seeking $37 million for an F-35 flight simulator at Eielson Air Force Base for combat training.
Eielson needs the six-bay simulator for the "training of pilots of accompanying the arrival of 48 F-35 aircraft starting in the third quarter" of fiscal year 2019, the proposed Air Force budget says. Last August, the Air Force selected Eielson as the preferred location to be the second main operating base for the jets, with an official announcement expected this year.
The F-35, which remains in development as a replacement for jets such as the F-16, is the costliest U.S. weapons system. The aircraft is expected to enter service in 2019. The proposed White House budget includes $10.6 billion to purchase 57 of the fighters from Lockheed in the next fiscal year and nearly 330 more from 2017 to 2020.
The budget released Monday also includes funds to continue the expansion and modernization of the missile defense system at Fort Greely and planning for a new $1 billion long-range radar system that may be built at Clear Air Force Station, about 80 miles southwest of Fairbanks.
Vice Adm. James Syring, director of the Missile Defense Agency, said in a Pentagon briefing that the exact location for the long-range discrimination radar has yet to be determined, but "suffice it to say, it will be Alaska."
Agency documents say the new radar, which may also be built at Shemya, more than 1,500 miles southwest of Anchorage, or some other site, is essential to improving the missile defense system. The Obama administration is seeking $138 million to continue planning the radar.
"I think it's safe to say that we feel the technology maturity and the different offers from the various companies sets us up for a very competitive landscape for this procurement," he said.
He said he expects proposals from contractors in March and to award a contract before the fiscal year ends in September.
The advanced radar is to work in conjunction with the missiles in the ground at Fort Greely that are intended to protect the U.S. from attack. ThePentagon is on track to expand the number of defensive missiles from 26 to 40 over the next two-and-a-half years, Syring said. Overall, the plan is to spend $1.8 billion on the ground-based Midcourse Defense system, the main firepower of which is contained in the Fort Greely silos.
It is also planning to redesign the so-called "exoatmospheric kill vehicle" that sits atop each missile at Fort Greely. Weighing about 150 pounds, the kill vehicle is designed to detach from the rocket in space and lock onto an incoming missile, destroying it with the force of impact, not with explosives. The budget proposes $279 million to advance the new design, which is to be spearheaded by the government, building on the work of Raytheon,Boeing and Lockheed Martin.
Syring said the agency is doing "the system engineering and analysis" to better predict how the missiles would work in a real emergency. The system came into being under the Bush administration as a means of providing a limited defense against an attack from North Korea, though its reliability has been questioned from the start.
A 2014 report by the Inspector General of the Pentagon said this about the kill vehicle: "With more than 1,800 unique parts, 10,000 pages of work instructions, and 130,000 process steps for the current configuration, EKV repairs and refurbishments are considered by the program to be costly and problematic and make the EKV susceptible to quality assurance failures."
Syring said the preparations to expand the Fort Greely missile count to 40 are "going very, very well." That includes building new interceptors and correcting problems in the guidance system for the kill vehicle. A test of new thrusters is set for this year, while the agency plans to again test its ability to intercept an incoming rocket again next year. The agency conducted a successful $200 million test last June.
Syring said that some new interceptors have been installed in the system, describing it so far as "pull one out and put one in" approach. "All 44 will be in the ground by the end of fiscal year '17," he said, referring to the 40 missiles in Alaska and four at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.
Questioned by a reporter, Syring said that quality control has improved in the five years since the late Dave Altwegg, a missile defense leader, said "we continue to be disappointed in the quality that we are receiving from our prime contractors and their subs -- very, very disappointed."
Syring said the work of the prime contractors, Boeing and Raytheon, has improved significantly, as has the work of major subcontractors. He said he is not entirely satisfied, but there is progress.
"If there's one pocket of concern, it would be at the third- and fourth- and fifth-tier suppliers, and we're aggressively attacking that with them to get at any outliers there as well," Syring said.
Power plant plans
Aside from the F-35 simulator, the only other major Air Force construction project in the budget for Alaska is $34.4 million to demolish a 1951 coal boiler at Eielson and replace it with a new one, providing steam heat and electricity. This would be the third phase of a five-part effort to replace six boilers that are more than a half-century old.
The boiler is used at only 83 percent of its capacity because of weak spots on the casing, the Air Force said, and there have been three failures of the ash conveyor belt in the last year. All parts have to be custom-made because of the age of the equipment. Boiler failure us "imminent," the Air Forcesaid.
At Fort Greely, the Army is proposing $7.8 million to construct an addition to a gym, built in 1956, to include an indoor track. In its justification, the Army said, "the extreme Alaskan winter climate coupled with near-perpetual darkness, 21 hours, makes an undesirable and potentially unsafe running situation. Winter conditions persist from September through May."