Military brass stress looming Real ID deadline in briefing
JUNEAU — Alaska’s top military brass were in Juneau March 23 for their annual briefing to the Legislature’s Joint Armed Services Committee.
Air Force Lt. Gen. Kenneth Wilsbach and Army Major Gen. Bryan Owens had some key messages to convey.
One is that Alaska’s $3 billion-plus military industry will be stable for the foreseeable future; a second is that the big construction programs at Interior Alaska defense installations are on track; third is that there are no Army reductions planned, for now, at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson.
Another message the generals hammered home, however, is that Alaska had better get its act together on the federal Real ID program or civilian workers will face big hassles getting on bases beginning in June and all residents will face the same boarding aircraft for domestic flights in December.
Without state identification that complies with the federal Real ID Act or a U.S. passport, Alaskans seeking entry to bases will have to be met and escorted, Gen. Wilsbach told legislators.
“Not only will they have to be escorted into the base but the escort will be required to remain with them for the entire time they are on base,” Wilsbach said.
It could be a big problem, particularly for construction workers now building facilities for F-35 interceptors at Eielson Air Force Base. Wilsbach said he has no flexibility in enforcing the federal ID law, and that he hopes the construction schedule at Eielson, and also projects underway at Fort Wainwright and Clear Air Force Station, aren’t jeopardized.
Legislation proposed by Gov. Bill Walker that would allow Real ID-compliant identification to be issued in Alaska has been languishing in House and Senate committees all spring, but on the same day Wilsbach spoke (Walker also sent out a press release) the Senate State Affairs Committee moved Senate Bill 34.
However, House version HB 74 is still in the State Affairs Committee.
What has stalled the bills to day, and earlier efforts to comply with the federal law, is a concern for privacy, since Real ID requires a background check as a security measure. In fact, Alaska passed a law in 2008 barring the state from spending any money to comply with the federal Real ID law.
The generals’ immediate concern is getting civilian workers who don’t have the IDs or valid passports to their jobs on base but Walker said Alaskans’ biggest hassle will be the inability to board aircraft.
“Alaskans who want to visit family, attend a funeral or take a vacation will need a passport or federally-approved form of identification to fly, even within Alaska and the rest of the U.S., unless our state complies with the federal Real ID requirements,” Walker said in his March 23 statement.
“For many, passports can be difficult and expensive to get,” but the pending legislation would allow the state to enact minimum security requirements and issue Real ID-compliant drivers’ licenses at local Division of Motor Vehicles offices, Walker said.
On other issues, the two generals, also joined by Alaska’s U.S. Coast Guard commander Rear Admiral Michael McAllister and the state Adjutant General, Major Gen. Laurel Hummel, detailed upcoming exercises and projects planned for 2017.
Wilsbach stressed the importance of Alaska’s ample spaces available for training, particularly in the air. The Air Force hosted 16 nations to four Red Flag air combat training sessions in 2016, which are held at Eielson Air Force Base but with some aircraft and support from JBER.
More Red Flag events are planned in 2017.
Another exercise in 2016 was Arctic Chinook, a major search and rescue drill, with multinational partners, simulating response to a cruise ship incident in remote Arctic waters.
Wilsbach said the voyage of the cruise ship Crystal Serenity through Arctic waters last summer has raised concerns over how well prepared military and civilian agencies in Alaska are to a problem at sea requiring mass evacuation of passengers.
Another Arctic voyage for the Crystal Serenity is reported to be planned for 2017.
Gen. Owens, of the Army, mentioned several Army exercises including a Feb. 22 airdrop of 128 soldiers near Deadhorse, on the North Slope, in wind chill temperatures of minus-60 degrees Fahrenheit.
“This was an exercise to test our ability to insert forces in full-on winter conditions. After landing, paratroopers moved out on skis and snowshoes across frozen tundra. Soldiers also tested the capacity to provide mission command and communications at high latitude locations,” Owens told the joint legislative committee.
Air Force Gen. Wilsbach said the Eielson AFB preparation for arrival of F-35 interceptors is going full-bore with $298 million in projects to be underway in the current federal fiscal year 2017 involving building or renovation of 35 buildings.
The total investment through fiscal year 2019 will be $512 million, Wilsbach said.
Many of the projects for Eielson are still out to bid but the first major contract, awarded in December, is to Watterson Construction for a $19.8 million F-35 flight simulator facility at the base, according to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
A second, $11.3 million contract for earth-covered magazines for munitions, will be awarded March 31, the corps said.
The first of the F-35s will arrive in spring 2020 and the last in 2022, Wilsbach told the legislators.
“3,500 people are being added to Eielson’s population, and that will effectively double the base population,” he said.
For JBER, in Anchorage, Army Gen. Owens said he is unaware of any planned force changes for the Army, and particularly the 4-25 infantry airborne combat brigade that was threatened with a major drawdown two years ago.
“We’re hearing of no changes, up or down, for at least two years. But that’s not to say it couldn’t happen in some future budget cycle,” Owens said.
Alaska was home to 27,764 Department of Defense personnel in fiscal year 2015, the most recent year for which data is available, according to the department’s Office of Economic Adjustment annual “Defense Spending by State” report.
In that year, total defense-related spending was $3.3 billion including $1.7 billion in payroll. The bulk of the military personnel were in the Anchorage area, with 16,463, and another 9,571 were in the Fairbanks North Star Borough.
The remainder were spread in other communities, particularly those with a Coast Guard presence.
Tim Bradner is co-publisher of Alaska Legislative Digest and a contributor to the Journal of Commerce. He can be reached at [email protected].