FAIRBANKS — Alaska’s congressional delegation confirmed Wednesday that the Air Force has abandoned plans to move Eielson Air Force Base’s F-16 squadron to Anchorage.
The delegation announced the news Wednesday afternoon during a telephone news conference. Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski said the information came from a meeting with top Pentagon officials, Acting Secretary of the Air Force Eric Fanning and Pacific Air Forces Commander Gen. Herbert “Hawk” Carlisle.
“It’s great news. It’s been a push,” Fairbanks North Star Borough Luke Hopkins said. “It’s like the clouds have cleared, and there’s a sharp view of what’s ahead for us.”
The announcement ends an almost two-year struggle against the Air Force’s proposal waged by Fairbanks community leaders and the Alaska congressional delegation. The struggle started in February 2012 when the Air Force announced plans to move the 21-plane 18th Aggressor Squadron to Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson as a cost-cutting measure.
Reason for reversal
The delegation said the Air Force reversed course because the savings didn’t pan out, because of consequences to the Interior economy and because of a recent military commitment to focus on the Asia Pacific region.
The move would have cost the Interior 1,551 military and civilian jobs and was projected to increase the borough’s unemployment rate from 6.2 percent to 8.9 percent, assuming the
population would not have shrunk, according to the environmental impact statement the Air Force created for the project.
In addition to strong opposition in Fairbanks business and local government circles, the move was opposed in Anchorage by the chamber of commerce, mayor and the economic development corporation. They argued that Southcentral didn’t have the housing to accommodate the influx of airmen and civilian workers.
“It was not Anchorage versus Fairbanks. It was the whole state coming out and saying ‘Eielson is critical. America needs Eielson,’” Murkowski said during the news conference.
A long struggle
During the past two years, the congressional delegation wrote language into military budgets to prevent the Air Force from moving the squadron and delayed the promotion of a three-star general.
“We played some hard ball; you’ve got do that sometimes,” said Democratic Sen. Mark Begich. “We were never here to say ‘We’re going to use our legislative office to reverse a decision.’ What we said is ‘We’re going to use our offices to get information, because we will win on the information and the facts.’”
Hundreds of people came to community meetings in Fairbanks and North Pole to testify in support of keeping the planes and associated jobs at Eielson Air Force Base.
Murkowski said the community’s enthusiasm played a role in the decision.
“I tell you, I think (Air Force leaders) were really surprised when they came up to Alaska for the hearing this summer. I think that they thought that they would wear the people down and that the momentum was going to lag, that (the people) weren’t going to rally,” she said.
Instead of a reduction, Eielson Air Force Base may see an expansion. Also mentioned at the press conference was a possible new mission.
The delegation said the Air Force will announce its criteria Thursday for the F-35, the Air Force’s newest jet fighter. Carlisle told a group of Washington, D.C., reporters this summer that Eielson is in the running for the first Pacific installation to base the F-35.
The struggle over the F-16s is the second time this decade the Air Force has tried to make reductions at Eielson.
“Can we say it’ll never happen again? I can’t say that, but I think the chances are pretty good it won’t happen again. But we always have to be aware,” Republican Rep. Don Young said at Wednesday’s press conference.
Contact staff writer Sam Friedman at 459-7545. Follow him on Twitter, @FDNMcrime.