Army hears from Alaska on force cuts

Photo/Justin Connaher/U.S. Air Force

It felt like a high school pep rally, but the result is far more important than any Friday night football game.

Alaska leaders joined hundreds of Anchorage residents at the Dena’ina Civic and Convention Center Feb. 23 — an effort to demonstrating the state’s support of the military before a U.S. Army panel tasked with determining which bases should lose troops.

Veterans gave impassioned testimony about the pride Alaskans feel for their military neighbors and how welcome the forces are in the state.

Army Deputy Assistant Secretary John McLaurin, Col. Thomas O’Donoghue and Lt. Col. Larry Kimbrell also heard directly from Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott, Rep. Don Young and Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan about the strategic importance of the state’s military installations.

The crowd cheered and waved “Proud Veteran” and “Anchorage Rallies Behind Our Troops” signs after nearly every speaker during the public listening session, which lasted for hours into the night.

Army delegations like the one visiting Anchorage Feb. 23 are in the midst of traveling to 30 bases across the country to see where force reductions should come from. The three traveled to Fairbanks and Fort Wainwright Feb. 24.

The Army is working to reduce its troop strength under the Army 2020 Force Structure Realignment plan, a result of the 2011 Budget Control Act — also known as sequestration — passed by Congress. If the cuts are fully executed as proposed, the Army’s total force would shrink from 570,000 soldiers to 450,000 by 2017.

Force reductions at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson are focused on the Army’s airborne 4th Brigade Combat Team, 25th Infantry Division, a potential loss of 5,000 troops and their 9,000 family members.

According to the JBER website, the 4th Brigade is the only airborne brigade combat team in the Pacific Theater. It is also the newest airborne brigade combat team and one of only six in the United States Army.

If 14,000 people left Anchorage the city’s population would shrink by 4.5 percent, according to Anchorage Economic Development Corp. President and CEO Bill Popp.

Additionally, cutting the 1st Stryker Brigade at Fort Wainwright could mean Fairbanks would lose 16,000 more troops, spouses and children. Combined, Alaska would lose 4 percent of its population under the worst-case scenario.

Direct Army wages account total more than $500 million in Anchorage, with additional payroll coming from civilian on-base positions, according to AEDC.

Fairbanks Economic Development Corp. CEO Jim Dodson has said the military accounts for 30 percent of total employment in Fairbanks and North Pole.

Murkowski said via live video feed from Washington, D.C., that she wants the Army to pause its troop reduction and noted it’s unlikely the branch will cut 30 brigades. But regardless of the size of the Army, Alaska is the place to focus its active force, she said.

“Alaska remains an integral part of our ability to respond to the Pacific,” she said.

Sullivan, a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve, sits on the Senate Armed Services Committee. He emphasized what Defense Secretary Ashton Carter, U.S. Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh and other Army leaders have said about what Alaska means to national security.

“Every single one of them has been talking in the last few weeks about how strategically important Alaska is,” Sullivan said to the Army panel.

Sullivan and Young each referenced the late Army Brig. Gen. William “Billy” Mitchell, who is quoted as saying, “He who controls Alaska controls the world.”

The benefits of the state’s location are undeniable. Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport has become a global cargo hub because it is less than 10 hours by jumbo jet from 90 percent of the industrialized world. Alaskans tried to make sure that position is not lost on the military.

Earlier on Feb. 23, Anchorage City Manager and retired Army officer George Vakalis noted during an Anchorage Chamber of Commerce event that Alaska’s installations are less than 12 hours from areas of international concern as far away as Afghanistan.

Vakalis focused his remarks on the advantages Alaska provides rather than the negative socio-economic impact the force losses would have because pain will be felt wherever troops are pulled across the country, he said.

He noted that troops can be moved between forts Richardson and Wainwright via two road routes and rail and that the Port of Anchorage — a strategic Department of Defense port — is “contiguous” with JBER.

Alaska’s congressional delegation members and Vakalis all highlighted the 1.5 million acres of training grounds the state affords military forces. On top of that, Arctic training opportunities are limited elsewhere and the lessons learned can be taken worldwide, Sullivan and Vakalis said.

“The principles applied to keeping soldiers alive in the Arctic apply to keeping soldiers alive in the desert,” Vakalis said. “Our troops here in Alaska can be sent worldwide. I’ve seen it; I’ve experienced it.”

Lt. Gov. Mallott drove home the point that military personnel stationed in Alaska stay here after their service is up. The state’s veteran population is growing 5 percent annually, he said.

Chugiak-Eagle River Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Susan Gorski said census data reflects former and current military feel about the Anchorage suburbs.

“We are a hometown close to the bases. We are a great, family-friendly community,” Gorski said. “People have discovered that, and military people are staying here. The veterans numbers are quite stunning.”

According to the 2010 census, 6 percent of the area’s workforce is active military and 21 percent of its total population of about 35,000 are veterans.

The prospect of Army force reductions comes less than a year-and-a-half after the Air Force announced it had abandoned a plan to relocate a fighter squadron from Eielson Air Force Base in Fairbanks to JBER in Anchorage. The congressional delegation and leaders from both communities campaigned against the plan because of the economic toll it would take on the Fairbanks area and the added stress 1,500 more residents would put on Anchorage’s already limited housing market.

Since, the Air Force has announced Eielson is a likely place for two new F-35 fighter squadrons, which could add some 2,000 residents to the area in the coming years.

Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected].

11/18/2016 - 5:54pm