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Commentary Search

168th Wing commander talks planes, 'hometown air force'

  • Published
  • By Jack Barnwell

Alaska Air National Guard Col. Mike Griesbaum, commander of the 168th Wing at Eielson Air Force Base, touched on a number of topics during a Greater Chamber of Commerce luncheon Tuesday, including a brief update on additional KC-135 stratotankers to be stationed at Eielson.

“We are getting four additional airplanes, and we already have one,” Griesbaum said.

Eielson already hosts eight KC-135s beyond the one it just received.

The KC-135s stationed at Eielson fall under the 168th Wing’s operations, and provide in-air refueling for the Air Force fighter jets, including the F-35 and F-16 squadrons.
Griesbaum said the Air National Guard requested a dual bay hangar facility over a single bay, which would be large enough to house either a KC-135 or C-17 Globemaster. Sen. Dan Sullivan has requested funding in his series of 2024 National Defense Authorization Act.

“That hangar is an absolute necessity from an operations and strategic in order to bring the fight,”Griesbaum said.

He said 13 military construction projects associated with the buildup are anticipated at anestimated $300 million economic impact.

When all four KC-135 tankers arrive in place, it could bring up to 275 additional personnel and theirfamilies over the next two years.

Those personnel and families will require additional resources in the community, including childcare and housing. 

“Access to services is a real challenge,” Griesbaum said.

‘Hometown Air Force’
The 168th Wing has 683 personnel who are stationed at Eielson and Clear Space Force Station but is authorized for up to 838 people.
The bulk of the personnel, 583 Guardsmen and civilians, are stationed at Eielson. Of those about491 live in Interior and 91 commute from the Matanuska-Susitna Valley.
In its domestic roles, the 168th Wing serves as Santa Claus’s ride to Interior Alaska villages every Christmas season as the Air National Guard helps deliver presents to remote communities off the road system.

“At Eielson, we are very much a drill-status unit,” Griesbaum said. He noted unlike Air Force or Army servicemembers who transfer every few years, Guardsmen remain in the community and work in civilian fields when not on active duty
“That means is that the members of my wing work for you, they have civilian jobs, live here and raise their families here,” Griesbaum said.
Griesbaum said another 100 Guardsman from the 168th Wing are stationed at Clear Space Force Station, about 70% of the personnel. The wing accounts for 75% of Clear’s personnel who operate long-range early warning radar system and provide the entire security force for the installation.
The wing also includes a small medical group comprised of 54 personnel, along with security and technical groups.
The 168th also provide disaster response assistance when tasked by Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s office, such as during the spring flooding events in Circle.

Griesbaum called the 168th Wing an invaluable asset for Alaska and national defense.
“The ability to air refuel is one of the key enablements that allows the U.S. Air Force to project power like no other nation in the world,” Griesbaum said. “It’s not glamorous, but no one gets anywhere without us.”
Griesbaum defined readiness as a KC-135 being able to fuel four F-16s in seven minutes.
“If you’re on the boom, you’re not in the fight,” he said. “We are more ready to carry out the fight because of the training.”
He added every time the Air Force deploys aircraft to intercept Russian aircraft operating inside the Alaska Air Defense Identification Zone but outside the national airspace, tankers are there to refuel the U.S. fighters in flight.
“Alaska is the most strategic place, whoever controls Alaska controls the world,” Griesbaum said, citing a 1935 speech by Gen. Billy Mitchell. “We are about an 8 hour fl ight from 70% of the population of the Earth.”

Griesbaum briefly touched on the need to modernize and recapitalize the nation’s refueling fleet.
“The KC-135 is 60 years old and no one will believe that they are 60 years old because we have fabulous maintenance,” Griesbaum said. “I will send young men and women into harm’s way on aircraft that are older than parents.”
The Defense Department commissioned the KC-135 in the 1950s from Boeing and were produced from 1955 to 1965. Griesbaum noted that three generations of air crews have flown the planes since their inception, with a fourth coming up.
“We have to recapitalize the fleet,” Griesbaum said. “We are paying the price for 30 years of neglect of the KC-135 in terms of capability.”
He compared updates to the aircraft similar to placing the current version of Microsoft Windows on a 30-year-old processor.
“It might be able to make it work but you’re strapping exquisite capabilities on an aircraft that is designed 70 years ago and built 60 years ago.”
The KC-46 Pegasus air tanker, commissioned as a replacement to the KC-135, were introduced in2019 and approved for general operational use in September 2022. According to the Defense Department, 68 have been delivered to the Air Force and a total of 128 on order.
Delivery of the air tankers briefly paused after the Air Force testers detected some system flaws but Boeing resumed production this year.
Griesbaum said discussions about where some of the new aircraft will be stationed remains ongoing but the wing has requested they be assigned to Eielson.
“The KC-46 has significantly more capability than the KC-135 and significantly better digital architecture.”