The Air Force is swapping out Eielson’s aging F-16 fighter jets

two F-16 fighter jets
Two newer F-16 Fighting Falcons formerly based at Dannelly Field, an Alabama Air National Guard Base, taxi into a hangar at Eielson Air Force Base after arriving on Jan. 12, 2023. (Ricardo Sandoval/354th Fighter Wing Public Affairs)

The Air Force has begun replacing Eielson Air Force Base’s aging fleet of F-16 Fighting Falcons with upgraded models of the fighter jet. The first two of the newer jets arrived last week.

The two newer F-16s are both about 35 years old, a couple of years younger than the jets they’ll replace. More importantly, the incoming F-16s have avionics that were updated five years ago, nearly a decade after the old jets got their last upgrade.

“So, it’s still the same airframe and engine,” says Lt. Col. Albert Roper, the commander of Eielson’s 18th Aggressor Squadron. “However, with the increase in systems capabilities upgrade, some of the software, the processors, all that has been replaced.”

Roper says the upgraded jets will enable his unit to better train U.S. and allied pilots to fight adversaries’ advanced aircraft, including so-called fifth-generation fighters, comparable to Eielson’s F-35 Lightning IIs and the F-22 Raptors based at Joint Base Elmendorf Richardson.

“Our daily training here is interaction with local fifth-gen aircraft here in the state of Alaska, both F-22s from down there at JBER and then with the F-35s here at Eielson Air Force Base, in order to keep them operationally proficient and combat-ready,” he said in an interview Thursday.

Roper’s unit is called the Aggressor Squadron because its pilots often play the role of adversaries during training exercises held every year out of Eielson and JBER. Those include Red Flag and Northern Edge, both of which are conducted in the skies above the 65,000-square-mile Joint Pacific Alaska Range Complex, a series of ranges spread around the state.

“The mission of the Aggressors is to know the threat,” he said. “We teach that threat to our combat aircrews and their partner nations. And then we replicate that threat in the aircraft.”

Roper says that training will continue over the next several months, with both the new and old F-16s. He says during that time, two or three of the newer jets will arrive every few weeks, and two or three of the older ones will then fly their final missions to the Aircraft Maintenance and Regeneration Center at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in southern Arizona — the so-called Boneyard, where aircraft are stored before being sold, repurposed or recycled.

“By August or September of this year,” he said, “hopefully the transition’s been completed and we’ve got our newer jets here and the other ones are down in the Boneyard mothballed-away.”

Roper says all 19 of the squadron’s F-16s will be replaced with the newer jets.

Tim Ellis is a reporter at KUAC in Fairbanks.

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