Sullivan tapped for oversight of Pacific force rebalancing

Photo/J. Scott Applewhite/AP

Alaska U.S. Sen. Dan Sullivan has been tasked by Senate Armed Services Committee chairman John McCain to be the committee’s point person on oversight of the Pentagon’s Pacific “rebalancing” of U.S. forces, being done to counter potential North Korean aggression, an expanding Chinese military presence and Russia’s own rebalancing of forces to the Arctic.

Sullivan wastes no opportunity to remind top Pentagon brass that reinforcing the U.S. presence in the Pacific doesn’t make sense if the Army pulls troops out of Alaska.

Additionally, energy supplied from Alaska in the form of liquefied natural gas reinforces security in the Pacific region because it diversifies supplies, reduces transport and comes from a politically secure source, the U.S.

Sullivan got a chance to reinforce that point in his first official trip to the Pacific, done at McCain’s request, when he scored a private meeting with Japan Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

That was a bit of a coup for a newly-elected freshman senator.

Sullivan said he’s been a frequent critic of President Barak Obama, particularly on foreign policy, but he is supportive of the president’s two Pacific initiatives: the force rebalancing and a pending Pacific trade agreement.

“The Asia-Pacific region is critically important to Alaska, not only in trade but also in defense,” because Alaska forces will be among the first responding to an emergency in the region, Sullivan said.

McCain asked Sullivan to meet with top U.S. military officers in Hawaii, Guam and Okinawa, and Sullivan added Tokyo to meet with top Japanese officials including Abe. It was just before the prime minister’s trip to the U.S., which included an address to a joint session of Congress.

“The message I delivered to the prime minister and also to the U.S. Ambassador to Japan, Caroline Kennedy, is that the military rebalancing is on track but that a component is missing, energy supply,” Sullivan said in an interview.

“That is an opportunity to significantly deepen our security relationship with Japan and Korea. They badly need energy, and we have it.”

In their meeting Abe told Sullivan that Japan needs more natural gas and that he would be pleased to see it come from places other than the Middle East. Abe told the senator that obtaining gas from Alaska makes sense, Sullivan said.

“I found the prime minster very up to speed on Alaska gas,” he said.

Sullivan explained the regulatory status of the Alaska project and that it was now in the pre-front end engineering and design, or pre-FEED, phase, but he was able to describe construction now underway at Point Thomson, involving several billion dollars of investment, as a sign of serious commitment to the gas project by industry and the state.

Given the interest in Japan, now would be perfect time for the U.S. Energy Department to grant conditional approval to the Alaska LNG Project for the export of natural gas to Asia, Sullivan said. It would be an important gesture in the energy-security relationship.

“This would be the first official U.S. approval for the project and it would communicate that the support from the federal government is real,” the senator said.

The U.S. DOE has said that it will “fast-track” the export permit application for the Alaska LNG project, Sullivan said. U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz told the senator in January that the permit was “to be issued soon,” Sullivan said he was told. It’s now May, and “I’m still waiting,” Sullivan said.

On the force rebalancing, Sullivan was briefed by officials on the large U.S. military buildup on Guam and the transfer of forces away from Okinawa to Guam and Australia.

Alaska is already playing a part in the rebalancing, as seen in the recent Air Force moves to retain F-16s interceptors at Eielson Air Force Base and plans to locate two new F-35 squadrons there. However, the Army’s plan to reduce its forces, which could affect Alaska and Army brigades stationed here, seems contrary to the plan, Sullivan said.

Sullivan grabs opportunities to make that point with top brass during meetings of the Armed Services Committee.

In one hearing on April 30, Sullivan questioned Air Force Gen. Philip Breedlove, commander of the U.S. European Command.

Given the buildup of China’s military and Russia’s recent assertiveness in the Arctic, the senator asked Breedlove: “Do you think it makes sense to remove one Army soldier from Alaska, let alone one or two entire Combat Brigade Teams and the only airborne Army capabilities in the Pacific and Arctic?”

Breedlove replied, “Senator, you rightly recognize that this (Alaska) is a strategic area and one that is important, and that (Russia’s president Vladimir) Putin will be watching.

“I do know the Army is facing some fiscal issues but I do believe it is important that we keep the right capabilities to resist aggression in the north.”

In an earlier April 16 hearing of the committee, Admiral Samuel J. Locklear, commander of the U.S. Pacific Command, agreed that the Alaska forces could be mobilized quickly to Asia.

“If you look at the globe you can see that the Alaska forces are as far west, or even further west, than Hawaii. So the response time of those forces to Asia would be very good,” he said.

Locklear also complimented the training facilities in Alaska: “The range complexes we have in Alaska are very important, because that’s where we get our high-end training for some of the hardest-type environments our aviators will fly in,” he told Sullivan and other Armed Services committee members.

11/20/2016 - 9:08am