FAIRBANKS — The Air Force and Alaska have a long history together — and we look forward to an ambitious future as the nation embarks upon the 21st century. The Air Force is a key member of our tight-knit Alaska family. But just as family members can be candid and ask blunt questions of one another, I wanted to politely inquire about an Air Force decision I find curious: how and where it is positioning its new KC-46A tanker fleet.
The KC-46A Fleet Basing Strategy has been laid out to replace 179 aging KC-135 aircraft with the newer, more capable KC-46A during the next 10 years. The KC-46 has a fueling capability with a cargo transporting ability that is far superior to its predecessor. The Air Force envisions a plan that will establish one Formal Training Unit and as many as 10 Main Operating Bases. The Formal Training Unit will be an active duty led unit at a base within the continental United States that will begin training students in 2016. The Main Operating Bases will be divided into two active duty locations in the continental United States, six reserve component installations within the Lower 48, and up to two bases located OCONUS, or outside the continental United States. The OCONUS units include one unit in the Pacific Theater and one in the European Theater.
So why is this strategy causing our Alaska family concern? In January, Secretary of Defense, Leon Panetta, released a document entitled “Sustaining U.S. Global Leadership: Priorities for 21st Century Defense.” It’s a road map for the Pentagon’s path forward in future years. It contains a letter from President Obama, outlines the necessity to order our fiscal house — and states clearly that we must focus our attention squarely on the Asia Pacific. Secretary Panetta continues the President’s message by stating we will have a “global presence emphasizing the Asia-Pacific” and then outlines his priorities.
Paraphrasing real estate agents nationwide, I have one word for Defense Secretary Panetta: Location, location, location.
It appears the Air Force may be overlooking its geographic focus as it plans the positioning of the KC-46A. The secretary has clearly required a shift in our military posture orienting it toward the Pacific. He has stipulated that our national focus must be toward the region that encompasses about half the earth’s surface, the world’s largest ocean, 36 nations, and more than 50 percent of the world’s population.
But it is here I see a disconnect: As we shift our eyes to a re-envisioned military map, the U.S. Air Force is doubling-down on locations within the continental United States. With the possibility of supporting missions that are twice that distance off of our shores, does it make sense to keep those assets in an area where their potential is not maximized, in landlocked state that deny us a degree of response time and agility? Or should we place those units at the more strategic locations that can provide distinct advantages to our fleet?
Basing in Japan, Guam, Hawaii and Alaska allows the Air Force to fully utilize the capabilities of the new tanker. Alaska is already known as the “bridge to the Pacific.” Eielson Air Force Base has one of the only “gas stations” en route to points further west.
Geographically, Alaska is closer to all points in Russia, China, Korea and south Asia than any other state in the Lower 48. When a large scale contingency operation kicks off, the Air Force will rely on Alaska to support. Just recently, the chief of staff of the Air Force, Norty Schwartz, admitted to me that the Air Force isn’t going to “walk away from 23 million gallons of gas,” referring to the amount of fuel pumped from Eielson each year. So why not place equipment where it’s tactically helpful — not to mention where the gas is — rather than place them down south, far away from the “gas station” and make them burn fuel (and time) flying over American soil?
In addition to the KC-46s, I have questions about our 168th Air Refueling Wing at Eielson — currently operating at maximum capacity. It can only support approximately two thirds of the missions it would under ideal conditions and funding. Basically, the missions it can’t support must be executed by other units who must fly farther to support the same mission — increasing the cost of the mission. From 2010 until now, the 168th has supported 62 percent of the 862 requested sorties for refueling. The balance had to be made up external to the unit, which to my eyes indicates that more fueling assets should be assigned to the base. In my mind, Eielson is a prime candidate for the new KC-46s.
Parochialism aside, the entire Pacific Theater is going to need more fueling assets. I have already written to the Air Force to express my concern for this potential problem. The operational tempo is going to increase in the region as our country conducts its strategic pivot. As the military gazes westward, I think it’s critical it looks “North to the Future” as well.
Lisa Murkowski has served Alaska as a Republican U.S. senator since 2002.