FAIRBANKS-Alaska's members of Congress reacted with strong words Tuesday upon learning of the grounding of the Eielson Air Force Base F-16 squadron and several other Air Force units across the nation.
Democratic Sen. Mark Begich complained that sequestration - the recent automatic across-the-board budget cuts in both defense and non-defense spending - has forced the Department of Defense "to make cuts in every budget account, rather than smart cuts to inefficient and wasteful programs."
"I am working with the Department of Defense and my colleagues to find better ways to address our country's budget crisis without comprising military readiness," he said.
Begich, a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, said he introduced legislation Tuesday with Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., that would redirect funding from the MEADS missile system to accounts marked for "day-to-day operations like Red Flag-Alaska and 18th Aggressor Squadron flying hours."
The Medium Extended Air and Missile Defense System, or MEADS, is in development as the successor to the Patriot anti-missile system and is a shared investment with some European nations. Congress initially cut the funding when Pentagon officials indicated they did not want the system, but the money was restored last month in stopgap federal funding legislation.
Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski noted the Air Force, which she said has been hit hardest by sequestration, has enough funds in other accounts but needs the flexibility transfer those funds.
"It has more than enough money in its procurement and research and development accounts to get through the current fiscal year, but it is over $4 billion short in operations and maintenance accounts," she said in a news release Tuesday.
"I support allowing agencies, including the Air Force, the flexibility to implement sequestration in the least harmful way, and the grounding of the Aggressor Squadron is precisely the scenario I was trying to avoid when I voted to support more flexibility and discretion in making those cuts."
The effort to give flexibility failed, however, so the Air Force cannot move funds.
Murkowski said Congress should replace automatic spending cuts with a package of targeted spending cuts, mandatory spending changes and tax reform.
"I worry that while sequestration is in effect, the administration will use the device to make the most visible cuts, not the least painful - the DoD tuition assistance program is the perfect example," she said.
Murkowski, also a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, said cancellation of the Northern Edge and Red Flag exercises "sends mixed signals to Alaskans and the international community," given that North Korea's leader is increasingly hostile and that the U.S. is adding interceptors at Fort Greely's missile defense installation.
Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, took a shot at President Obama and his administration.
"Much like the cancellation of Northern Edge last week and the cancellation of Red Flag a few weeks before, the grounding of Eielson's 18th Aggressor Squadron is a yet another sign of the tough financial situation that the Air Force is in due to sequestration and other budget adjustments," he said. "I have twice voted to replace the sequester with targeted spending cuts. Unfortunately, the only leadership the president has shown on the sequester is to cancel White House tours."
"While I am disappointed with the grounding, the prioritization of our forward-deployed forces is a must," he said. "I worry though about the readiness of our all our forces and the long-term effect these groundings, stand-downs and curtailment of training will have on the greatest military in the world."
Contact managing editor Rod Boyce at 459-7585. Follow him on Twitter: @FDNMeditor.