Inside the Gates: The importance of Alaska's Air Force
Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson made a promise to Alaska's U.S. senators during her confirmation 15 months ago that she would make a trip to Alaska.
On Wednesday, Wilson made good on her promise, paying a visit to Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson.
"Last night, I met with some members of the community," Wilson said. "Also great supporters of this joint base."
During a Thursday tour, Wilson said she was impressed by how how JBER is operated under the Air Force's 673d Air Base Wing, which recently received its first female commander.
"I was particularly glad to hear the arrangement between the Army and the Air Force," Wilson said. "It seems to be working very well here."
The main purpose of Wilson's visit is to see firsthand what is going on in Alaska, which will soon host both of the Air Force's modern stealth fighters.
"It's a great opportunity for me to educate myself on what's going on here and what the issues are here," Wilson said. "We have the F-22s (at JBER) and the air defense mission and F-35s on their way to Eielson (Air Force Base in Fairbanks) in 2020. We're trying to strengthen the amount of training we're able to do here."
Wilson touched on Alaska's unique positioning in the ever-changing landscape of defending the nation, as well as its satellites above the planet -- a concern which has fueled interest in a separate Space Force.
"The United States Air Force, the Navy and the Army over the last two years have been strengthening what we have in orbit," Wilson said. "The Air Force operates 77 satellites in orbit, the Navy about a dozen; so we have (been) shifting to expect that we will be contested in space. The Chinese are developing the ability to deny the use of space in crisis or conflict. So we are developing the capability with people to be able to defend what we have in orbit."
Wilson was also asked about how the Air Force plans to train and keep pilots, amid highly competitive demand for pilots in the civilian job market.
"We need to make sure we retain as many airmen as we can," Wilson said. "We put a lot of effort into training them. We also recognize there are a lot of opportunities out there right now. Airlines are hiring and are projected to keep hiring. We need to be the place where every airline wants to be. We also have to increase the number of pilots we are training. So, we are expanding pilot training. Next is absorption; we can't have all new pilots in a squadron. We need to give them time to learn. We're looking at how many squadrons we have and how many we really need."
On Friday, Wilson will tour Eielson with Lt. Gen. Kenneth Wilsbach, head of the Alaskan Command.
"We're looking at air defense," Wilson said. "Alaska is so strategically important for the United States and air defense. I'm really enjoying my time here."
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