Air Force general promises transparency on proposed F-16 move
In meetings with community leaders in Fairbanks and Anchorage April 10 to April 12, the Air Force general tasked with implementing the relocation of the F-16 squadron from Eielson Air Force Base to Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson promised a transparent process that will incorporate the deep concerns raised so far about impacts and whether the projected cost savings will be realized.
Brig. Gen. Mark McLeod, director of logistics for Pacific Air Forces based at Hickam Air Force Base in Hawaii, said he has “marching orders” to implement the F-16 move from Fairbanks to Anchorage as part of global cost-cutting in fiscal year 2013 under President Barack Obama’s budget.
McLeod must submit his report on the move by May 31. Congressional hearings with the armed services chiefs are scheduled for the same time period.
“I’ve asked all the community leaders to continue to bring their issues forward through what I call their chain of command — which is more the civilian side up to local representatives and elected officials,” McLeod said after the meeting. “That will allow us to bring this full discussion to light.”
The move would eliminate 623 positions at Eielson Air Force Base in Fairbanks, with the projected cost savings of $32 million over five years based on cutting 81 military jobs in the move to Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, or JBER, in Anchorage.
JBER would not have a net increase of 542 positions, though, as four C-130 aircraft there are also being retired in fiscal year 2013 along with 237 active duty personnel in Anchorage. The combination of the 21-plane, F-16 Aggressor Squadron moving to JBER and the loss of the C-130s results in a net increase of 125 positions.
Under the president’s budget, the Air Force must find $8.7 billion in savings for fiscal year 2013, but community leaders in Fairbanks told McLeod on April 11 that assumptions about projected cost savings from the F-16 move were wrong, that the action would jeopardize missions for the Pacific-Asia region, and that the impacts on the Fairbanks-North Star Borough demanded a thorough environmental assessment that has not been done.
In a meeting hosted by Anchorage Mayor Dan Sullivan on April 12, McLeod was also faced with questions of trust that date back to the Base Realignment and Closure, or BRAC, process in 2005, when the idea of moving the F-16 squadron from Eielson to Anchorage was stopped because the projected cost savings were shown to be erroneous.
Alaska Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Mark Begich, who had representatives at both meetings with McLeod, have pointed to the BRAC commission decision in 2005 to overturn the Air Force recommendation to shift the F-16s from Eielson to JBER.
The Alaska Congressional delegation has also sought, but not yet received, the underlying cost data being used to back up the proposed savings.
Begich, who is on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said he plans to fight the move “every step of the way.”
The two senators introduced legislation Feb. 8 that would bar the Air Force from executing the move, which Begich called an “end-run” around the formal BRAC process.
“A decision to relocate the F-16s from Eielson was already rejected in 2005 … recognizing Eielson has the best airspace and range complexes, and the estimated cost savings were inaccurate,” Begich said. “Nothing has changed since 2005. Eielson Air Force Base is critical to the defense of the United States.”
The latest proposal to move the F-16s isn’t taking place under a BRAC process, however, removing the ability for Fairbanks to appeal the action to the commission.
A Site Activation Task Force, or SATAF, is currently working to implement the move. The mayors of Fairbanks, North Pole and the borough told McLeod a more appropriate process would be a Site Survey Team that would determine whether the move could or should be done, not how.
McLeod assured community leaders at the Anchorage meeting that the SATAF process, while geared toward implementing the move, would allow for their concerns to be heard.
“The physics of the SATAF process is we gather information, identify shortfalls, we seek to mitigate shortfalls, and when you can’t, you identify those issues going forward to work on to implement,” McLeod said after the meeting. “The process lends itself, maybe not naturally, but can lend itself to addressing all those concerns. I’m hopeful that it will.”
Maintaining the capability of the Joint Pacific Alaska Range Complex was foremost in the comments from community leaders, and Anchorage Mayor Sullivan noted during the meeting that his takeaway from McLeod’s statements was that the Air Force must prove the F-16 move both maintains the mission while achieving the projected cost savings, and that JBER can absorb the forces and personnel from Eielson.
The mayors from Fairbanks-North Star Borough pointed to potentially devastating impacts on their communities and to the morale of the families who are moved to JBER and those left behind.
There are as many as 1,063 children associated with the F-16 move, which could force schools on Eielson to close due to low enrollment and send the remaining children to North Pole 20 miles away.
Nor will it be easy to Anchorage school districts to absorb that many children, not to mention the tight housing and rental markets around JBER and in Eagle River, where many personnel live.
McLeod was informed at the Anchorage meeting that the city as a 1 percent to 2 percent vacancy rate on rentals, which could force relocated personnel from Eielson to live as far as Wasilla with the long commute and additional cost from gas expenses.
Further, Anchorage has an unemployment rate of 5.9 percent, and 300 or so military spouses seeking jobs would represent a substantial increase to the labor pool.
Then there is the Fairbanks housing market, and the letter from the borough mayors told McLeod that putting 100 or more homes up for sale would drive down prices and decimate the investments of those who can’t sell their home and the value of those who remain.
“These families will lose money and possibly force them into bankruptcy, which will result in the loss of security clearances that will jeopardize or even end many excellent military careers,” the letter from the Fairbanks-North Star Borough stated.
Under a BRAC process, financial assistance may be provided to both communities who lose personnel and to the servicemen and women for relocation expenses that can include the government purchasing a home if it cannot be sold.
McLeod noted the difference between the current proposed move of the F-16s to a BRAC move in that relocation expenses or financial support are not currently provided, and that legislation would be required to do so.
There is also an underlying assumption to the cost savings of the move that no additional infrastructure will be required at JBER to absorb the F-16s. Issues such as infrastructure construction or financial assistance to military personnel or communities would alter the cost savings calculations.
The mayors from Fairbanks-North Star Borough told McLeod that the move to JBER would raise costs for the Air Force because fuel at Eielson is piped directly from the North Pole refinery. Moving the F-16 squadron to JBER would increase fuel needs in Anchorage, raising costs from either shipping fuel from North Pole or through increased imports to the state.
Andrew Jensen can be reached at [email protected].