As Production Ramps Up, Alaska Prepares To House F-35 Fighter Jets
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
The military's F-35 stealth fighter is designed to replace almost every fighter jet flown by the Air Force, the Navy and the Marine Corps. It is the most expensive military project in the history of the Pentagon, and the price just went up. It'll cost about $400 billion to buy the planes. The total cost, including flying and maintaining them, will top a trillion dollars.
There's a lot of support for this project, and one reason is that the money gets spent all over the country. We're going to go to one of those places now, 4,000 miles from the Pentagon. Here is Alaska Public Media's Zachariah Hughes.
ZACHARIAH HUGHES, BYLINE: No matter which part of Elmendorf Air Force Base you're on, you're surrounded by mountains - the Chugach Mountains which sit just a few miles away. This airfield just outside of Anchorage is where decisions are being made about where to house 54 of the Air Force's most advanced jet, the F-35. But there isn't much in the way of hardware yet, just budgets and blueprints.
MONICA VELASCO: The plans show you I guess the details, the foundations, the mix designs for your concrete or what colors or just - it provide more information.
HUGHES: Monica Velasco works for the Army Corps of Engineers here and is in charge of preparing for the deployment of the F-35s in Alaska.
VELASCO: Here we go.
HUGHES: She presses a button to raise up her standing desk and show off a digital copy of a recently awarded contract.
VELASCO: A little bit of patience because sometimes these contracts are very, very large. As you can see there, it's almost 2,500 pages.
HUGHES: The massive document is just for a single one-story building that will house a flight simulator at Eielson Air Force Base outside Fairbanks a few hundred miles north of here. It doesn't even include the actual simulator. And if the question is, how do you spend more than a trillion dollars on a plane, this is a small part of the answer. Sure, a lot of that money goes to sophisticated engineering, software development, advanced radar-absorbent materials, but it also pays for hangars and offices, for specific shades of interior paint, asphalt for parking spaces, the general banality of government design. And this particular building is just 1 of about 20 that'll come with the new planes.
VELASCO: It's the foundation of the F-35 bed-down coming in. But these facilities are so needed in order to house the pilots, house the equipment, house everything that's going to support this bed-down.
HUGHES: Someone's going to have to build all this, and that means federal dollars for local contractors. Velasco expects more than half a billion in construction dollars to come into the state in support of the F-35s. But there's another economic bonus. People will have to maintain the new planes at Eielson.
KEVIN BLANCHARD: Those folks all need places to live, schools to go to. The folks that aren't employed by the Air Force offer something to the labor pool.
HUGHES: Kevin Blanchard is in charge of coordinating the F-35 arrivals into the Fairbanks area. The city depends heavily on the military already. The two squadrons are expected to bring another 3,500 military personnel, contractors and family members. That's about 10 percent of the town's current population.
BLANCHARD: They spend money in the community at restaurants and stores and businesses, all of this type of thing. So there is an economic impact that is tied to each one of those individuals living in the community.
HUGHES: At a time when low oil prices have pushed Alaska into a recession, that's the kind of financial stability officials crave. And they pass that message back to Washington. In Alaska, there is no support for cutting back the number of F-35s set to be fielded.
(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)
DAN SULLIVAN: We have to continue to technologically advance.
HUGHES: Republican Senator Dan Sullivan sits on the armed services committee. He's adamant that the new plane's war fighting capabilities put it in a league of its own, a conclusion some dispute. But he's candid the project's been poorly managed.
(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)
SULLIVAN: I'm a defender of the final product, but in terms of the production and the cost overruns and the delays - I'm not a defender of that at all.
HUGHES: What he will defend are the jobs and dollars the program will bring to Alaska. That kind of local buy-in is one reason why the F-35, which got underway in the 1990s, has outlasted three presidents and is now onto its fourth. For NPR News, I'm Zachariah Hughes in Anchorage. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.