F-16s to stay at Eielson
Eielson’s F-16s are staying put. The announcement was made by Alaska’s congressional delegation that the 18th Aggressor Squadron fighters would remain at the Interior Air Force base rather than move to Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson in Anchorage during an Oct. 2 conference call.
“With (the Air Force’s) announcement they are abandoning the plan of relocating the Aggressor Squadron, abandoning the plan to downsize Eielson and put it in ‘warm’ status, this is good news for Alaska; it’s good news for the country,” Sen. Lisa Murkowski said during the call.
The delegation received the news from acting Air Force Secretary Eric Fanning the same day.
Sen. Mark Begich said they were told the Air Force re-evaluated the initial budgetary savings and strategic value of moving the fighters to JBER and that the delegation’s two years of “hardball” finally paid off.
Since early 2012 when Air Force officials formalized their plan to move the 21 fighters and associated airmen south, the delegation had worked to stop the move through several legislative and appropriations avenues. The senators went as far as to hold up the promotion of an Air Force general until the purported benefit of the move were investigated further.
“I think as the Air Force reexamined their information — looked long-term — what they have seen is it’s not just from a budgetary standpoint, but what the long-term value of Eielson is and the important work that’s going on there,” Begich said.
After the Air Force performed a Strategic Asset Assessment, Rep. Don Young said keeping the fighters at Eielson was “recognized as a long-term benefit for the state of Alaska and for the mission” of the U.S. military.
Young emphasized the strategic importance of Eielson Air Force base to the military because of its unique location being within flight reach of much of the world throughout much of the call.
Fairbanks North Star Borough Mayor Luke Hopkins said the announcement clarifies what had been an unsure economic future for the region.
“It’s like the clouds have lifted and we have a sharp view of what’s ahead.”
If the move had happened it was estimated up to 1,200 direct and indirect jobs would have been lost in the borough, according to an Air Force draft environmental impact statement.
City leaders in Anchorage also pushed back against the move, citing the city’s tight housing market and low unemployment as evidence it could not handle up to 1,500 new residents at once.
Delegation members all said the decision should put fears of an Eielson drawdown to bed for the foreseeable future, but that Alaskans should be ready to support Fairbanks if the issue arises again.
Now that the F-16s are safe, next on the delegation’s agenda is getting a new squadron of F-35 fighters moved to Eielson. An announcement detailing the criteria necessary for the F-35s new home is expected Oct. 3.
Eielson is a prime location for more fighters because it is in the middle of the “best training grounds in the country,” Murkowski said.
Young said the backing the Fairbanks community showed for the Air Force during the F-16 debate illustrates why Eielson would be an appropriate home for the F-35s.
“In the future, as Alaska looks toward a possible stationing of the F-35s, we hope to maintain our strong relationship with the Air Force,” he said. “Alaska, with its location, its access to state-of-the-art training ranges and its unmatched support for the military, really is the most strategic place in the world.”
Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected].