Alaskan Command used U.S. Air Force F-22 fighters by Lockheed Martin [LMT] to intercept more than 60 Russian aircraft last year, including Tupolev Tu-95 Bear bombers, and the command may pursue options for the intercept mission to reduce the workload on the fifth-generation fighter, Air Force Lt. Gen. David Krumm, the head of Alaskan Command and the commander of 11th Air Force at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson (JBER), Alaska, said on Apr. 28.

“We have certainly seen an increase in Russian activity,” Krumm told an Air Force Association Air and Space Warfighters in Action forum. “We intercepted over 60 aircraft last year…We monitored more than that. We use our F-22s, our E-3s, our KC-135s to get after that. While there is a strain on our units, they are managing it quite effectively.”

Nevertheless, “I can see in the future there would be some other opportunities [for intercept aircraft],” Krumm said. “The F-22 is our front line air superiority fighter, and there is a cost. Can we do that differently? We can, but I don’t know all the options we’re going to pursue yet. I know that any Air Force unit I bring up here will be able to do those intercepts with the same professionalism and proficiency that we have.”

Such options could include Boeing [BA] F-15s and F-15EXs or Lockheed Martin F-35As and F-16s.

U.S. Alaskan Command has 54 F-22s at JBER, and Air Force plans call for 54 F-35As at Eielson AFB, Alaska by the end of this year. Eielson already has its first squadron of F-35As and is standing up a second.

The F-35As that the “Icemen” at Eielson have are “working really well,” Krumm said. “About two or three weeks ago, they had a generation exercise that generated every single F-35 they have–all 25, all on the flight line, ready to go. If you know anything about fighters, you know that the MC [mission capable] rates are usually not quite that high, and their ability to do that is really a testament to the leadership and the way they’re getting after things up there.”

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) said last week that the F-35 full mission capable (FMC) rate is 54 percent–18 percent below the goal–and that sustainment costs for the F-35’s F135 engine by Pratt & Whitney [RTX] pose major challenges for the program (Defense Daily, Apr. 23).

“We have certainly been impacted in some ways by some of the sustainment issues,” Krumm said on Apr. 28. “We know that the impacts of the F135 engine will continue to be with us for a while, as Lockheed and Pratt & Whitney work through those. It is a different environment [in Alaska]. No one has put F-35s in that sort of environment, and so our airmen have done a lot of different ways to sustain that airplane up in the cold to include revamping the seat kits, as well as personal survival gear that pilots have to wear when they fly the airplane. We know that’s going to have to continue.”

Temperatures in Alaska can fall to 50 degrees below zero, and airmen have devised solutions, using vacuum packing and 3D printing, to allow the provision of cold-weather survival gear in the cramped, F-35 cockpit, Krumm said. The F-35 program’s redesign of the Martin Baker US16E ejection seat in 2017 to increase safety for pilots weighing less than 136 pounds lowered the amount of space available in the cockpit, he said.