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Eielson progress: Defense authorization bills could delay the F-16 move

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Posted: Sunday, December 9, 2012 12:04 am | Updated: 4:15 pm, Fri Jan 25, 2013.

Fairbanks Daily News-Miner editorial

The defense spending plan approved last week by the U.S. Senate puts Eielson Air Force Base in a relatively good position, thanks to the efforts of Alaska’s congressional delegation.

However, the Air Force’s proposal to move the base’s F-16s to Anchorage remains very much alive. Efforts to test the wisdom of that proposal should continue unabated.

The Senate passed its version of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2013 last week. The bill could delay the Eielson F-16 move either until Oct. 1, 2013, or until after a national commission proposed in the legislation is done reviewing the Air Force’s restructuring proposals nationwide in 2014.

These elements aren’t set in stone, though. The authorization bill must be merged with a House version and then receive the blessing of each house again before going to the president for a signature. Pitfalls could arise along the way.

Nevertheless, Eielson enters the process in good shape.

Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska and a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, secured language earlier in the year that would prevent the Air Force from evading the congressional base closure and realignment process by parceling out the F-16 move. He also obtained language that clarifies that the Air Force must count direct and indirect personnel losses in any proposed force reductions exceeding 1,000 members, a threshold that under current law triggers congressional review.

Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, secured similar language in the House version of the authorization act. Young also obtained language in the House version that would prohibit the Air Force from transferring or even preparing to transfer any aircraft in this fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30, 2013.

Finally, given the widespread unhappiness with the Air Force’s plans nationwide, the Senate Armed Services Committee version of the bill proposes a National Commission on the Structure of the Air Force that would review the proposals and report to Congress.

When the Senate bill came to the floor on Nov. 30, Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, successfully obtained the unanimous consent of her colleagues to delay the Air Force structure commission’s report deadline by a year — until March 31, 2014.

As a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, Murkowski also earlier had obtained proposed language in a separate spending bill that would prohibit force structure changes until after the commission reports.

All these proposals could help Eielson; however, they are tentative. They must be agreed to in a House-Senate conference committee.

Murkowski on Thursday wrote to the conference committee’s key players, outlining her concerns about Eielson.

She asked them to support the House language that would prohibit any transfers or preparations for transfer through the end of the fiscal year.

She also encouraged them to establish the Air Force structure commission.

Finally, if they do accept the commission, she encouraged them to prohibit any Air Force changes until after the commission reports in 2014.

Since both the House and Senate versions of the defense authorization bills contain elements that would delay the F-16 move, it’s likely that something will be approved.

That would buy some time for Fairbanks and the congressional delegation to identify any other flaws in the Air Force proposal. Because the base is of such great economic importance to the Fairbanks area, the community must continue that effort energetically.

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