RAF LAKENHEALTH, England — The first overseas US Air Force base to get the F-35 joint strike fighter is already making preparations for the jet's arrival in the early 2020s, but its commander is worried that the service will not be able to build the new facilities needed to beddown the plane as quickly as anticipated.
Col. Robert Novotny, commander of the 48th Fighter Wing at RAF Lakenheath, England, told Defense News that he is eager to receive the first joint strike fighter jets, but first new facilities must be built and old ones refurbished in order to support the aircraft. The service announced earlier this year that the base — located in in Suffolk, England — had been chosen to receive 54 F-35s in 2020.
That timeline has already been pushed back to the 2021-2022 time frame, Novotny said.
"For me the concern I have when I look at Lakenheath is not the F-35," he said in a July 2 interview. "For me the concern I have is: Are we going to be able to build enough stuff fast enough?"
According to Novotny, there are two potential risk factors. One problem is money, namely whether the nearly $200 million needed for military construction work on the base manifests during the budget process as predicted. The first four major projects are planned to begin construction in fiscal 2018.
The other concern is with the high demand for construction work based on the volume of ongoing and future construction projects in the region, including at neighboring bases such as the UK Royal Air Force's RAF Marham, which will receive its first F-35s a couple years before Lakenheath, he said.
"We've had about three or four formal meetings with folks from the United States and the [UK] Royal Air Force and Ministry of Defence. These are big meetings. The engineers come in, we've looked at our power requirements, we've looked at our connectivity requirements. We've looked at our space on the flightline. And so we've done quite a bit of design," he said.
Much of the construction will support the F-35's unique maintenance requirements including those for its engine and the low-observable tech that contribute to the aircraft's stealth, for example.
"There is some construction that needs to be done for the communication bandwidth requirements that we don't have here, and there are some infrastructure improvements powerwise because there's going to be a lot of demand on the power system," he said.
Other new facilities will be needed to support the 1,200 airmen who will support the two new F-35 squadrons, and the service is also studying whether it may need to bring in additional public affairs staff, lawyers and the corresponding infrastructure, he said.
In the near term, the service is focused on preliminary design efforts and environmental impact studies. It is also paying close attention to Marham's F-35 beddown plans.
"They're just down the road from us, and we're going to learn a lot of lessons when they put the airplane down, and they're going to learn a lot of lessons because we're putting a little bit bigger footprint down than they are," Novotny said.
A US Air Force F-15E Strike Eagle all-weather, highly maneuverable, dual-role fighter assigned to the 494th Fighter Squadron out of Royal Air Force Lakenheath, England, taxis down the Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska, flightline June 6, 2016, during the Red Flag Alaska exercises.
Photo Credit: Master Sgt. Karen Tomasik/US Air Force
Fifth-Generation Fighter Integration
Besides being the impetus for numerous changes around base, the arrival of the joint strike fighter will change the makeup of the 48th Fighter Wing. Lakenheath is currently home to five HH-60 Pave Hawks, 55 F-15E Strike Eagles and 21 F-15Cs that are funded through the wartime spending account in support of the European Reassurance Initiative. The Pave Hawks are scheduled to depart Lakenheath for Aviano Air Base in Italy around the time frame the F-35s arrive, but the future of the F-15C squadron is still in the air.
"We'd love to keep the F-15Cs around. I think a lot of people would. NATO would like to keep them around. It really becomes a money issue," he said. "And we can theoretically have 55 F-15Es, 54 F-35s — that's 109 [planes]. And then you could have 21 F-15Cs. Then you'll have 130 fighter airplanes. That would be amazing. That's more than just about any base I can think of."
Pilots at Lakenheath will begin training to fly the F-35 about six months before the plane's arrival, Novotny said. The biggest challenges will likely be getting full use of its fifth-generation capabilities and integrating the F-35s with legacy fourth-generation jets.
F-15 pilots got a taste of operating with a fifth-generation aircraft earlier this year when 12 F-22s from the 95th Fighter Squadron came to Lakenheath for a monthlong stint, the largest European deployment of the aircraft. The aircraft participated in exercise Iron Hand 16-3, trained with all three F-15 squadrons on base, and deployed to Romania and Lithuania, according to the Air Force.
Novotny said the utility of a fifth-generation aircraft becomes evident during operations such as taking down an air defense system, in part because a stealthy plane can be so much more effective.
"When we fly a fourth-generation plane against an air defense system, they see us, so we have to do certain tactics differently. We're at a lot greater risk when we do those things," he said. "But when we have, say, a fifth-generation airplane, they can locate those SAMs [surface to air missiles] a lot faster than we can, they can get closer without being detected, and then can knock them out or suppress them, allowing us to just save a lot of fuel, carry more weapons into, say, a different target area."
Valerie Insinna was Defense News' air warfare reporter. Beforehand, she worked the Navy and congressional beats for Defense Daily, which followed almost three years as a staff writer for National Defense Magazine. Prior to that, she worked as an editorial assistant for the Tokyo Shimbun’s Washington bureau.