UPDATED at 8:55 a.m.
FAIRBANKS - The U.S. Air Force has given a one-year reprieve to the F-16 squadron at Eielson Air Force Base, saying it will delay its plans to transfer the aircraft until at least fall 2013.
Sen. Mark Begich said Tuesday he received a written commitment from Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz to conduct housing and environmental studies before proceeding with the move. That will postpone efforts to move the squadron to Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson until the next fiscal year, which begins on Oct. 1, 2013.
An Air Force report released last month estimated that transferring the squadron to the Anchorage area would save at least $200 million during the first five years. But members of Alaska’s congressional delegation have dismissed those figures, saying the Air Force has provided little foundation to believe those savings are realistic.
Critics of the move said the delay will provide an opportunity to delve deeper into the numbers.
“I think it’s great news,” Begich said. “It says, OK, they are starting to realize the data are starting to prove our point.”
The Alaska Democrat, who is a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said he had “a tense but pleasant meeting” with Schwartz on Tuesday. The letter outlining the delay was delivered soon afterward.
Begich said he will release the hold he had placed on the promotion of Lt. Gen. Herbert J. Carlisle to four-star general. Begich had held up the nomination, which requires Senate approval, out of frustration with what he saw as the uncooperative nature of the Air Force regarding information about the F-16 transfer. Begich, Sen. Lisa Murkowski and Rep. Don Young have made the case in Congress that the Air Force has not provided information justifying the move since it was made public.
Military leaders also pledged to stop pending aircraft transfers at other Air Force bases this year, after eyeing as many as 60 installations for realignment. The Eielson F-16 transfer, however, is the only move mentioned specifically in Schwartz’s letter.
Schwartz pledged not to push forward with the relocation until Congress has completed action on the fiscal 2013 authorization and appropriations bills. If those bills include language that prohibits the transfer of the F-16 squadron, the Air Force will abandon the plan, the letter stated.
Schwartz also wrote that there would be a “continual review of the proposal,” including a housing study and an environmental review. Begich said he was told there will be “a review process to determine if it is affordable, feasible and if they can even execute it properly.”
The need to find savings within the military has increased with the approval in 2011 of the Budget Control Act by Congress and President Obama. The law requires the Department of Defense to identify $487 billion in savings during the next decade compared to previous spending plans.
Begich said he’s confident that Air Force leaders will realize the proposed F-16 transfer won’t contribute to that goal.
“They’ve got all next year to do studying, to fall of 2013,” he said. “And when they do what we want them to do, this won’t be a worthwhile move.”
Murkowski issued a statement Tuesday evening saying “while today’s announcement provides us with breathing room, we need to use this time and opportunity to make today’s victory a permanent one for Alaska and the nation’s defense.”
She argued against the move with Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and top military leaders.
“My point was simple: You are undercutting your new Asia-Pacific strategic focus by proposing this,” she said. “If you are serious about this plan, you need to do your homework. Alaskans and Fairbanksans know that the math doesn’t add up.”
Fairbanks North Star Borough Mayor Luke Hopkins said he was relieved by news of the delay but that it doesn’t mean the community can relax its efforts to stop the transfer. The F-16 proposal would transfer or eliminate roughly half the 3,100 military and civilian jobs at Eielson.
Hopkins was part of a group of local leaders that traveled to Anchorage on Tuesday to testify against the move at an Alaska Joint Armed Services Committee hearing. Eielson narrowly avoided closure during a base-realignment process in 2005, and Hopkins warned that another round of closures is being considered for 2015 and 2017.
“We have a chance to look at these plans under a greater magnifying glass,” Hopkins said. “Now we can’t just put our feet up, and I’m sure the Air Force isn’t going to either.”
The Legislature passed a number of bills this year aimed at supporting the state’s military bases. Rep. Steve Thompson, R-Fairbanks, authored a bill that would create zones around the states military bases to encourage private partnerships to spur new development and lower the cost to operate bases.
But Thompson said his bill likely won’t play much of a role at Eielson, since it could be targeted for closure before the legislation could make much of a difference. Instead, Thompson said, it’s important for the state to look at other, more immediate ways to reduce the costs at Eielson, such as pursuing affordable energy for the Interior.
“I think we pretty well meet real high on the quality of training grounds,” he said. “But when it comes down to it, the bean counters make the decisions. So we’ve got to find some way to reduce the cost so we don’t look so bad in the view of budget.”
North Pole Mayor Doug Isaacson agreed, saying it’s important for Gov. Sean Parnell to develop a meaningful plan for reducing Interior energy costs in the year ahead. He said the delay provides more time for that effort, as well as “a more deliberative process” for budget-cutting on the federal level.
“It allows our community to breathe a sigh of relief, at least for this winter,” he said.
Contact staff writer Jeff Richardson at 459-7518 and Matt Buxton at 459-7589.