FAIRBANKS — United States Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis visited Eielson Air Force Base on Monday morning to discuss Alaska’s strategic military placement and the F-35 squadron to be stationed at the base. 

Mattis was accompanied by Alaska Republican Sen. Dan Sullivan, who also traveled with Mattis on Monday morning to Fort Greely to visit the state’s missile defense field. Sullivan emphasized the critical position Alaska holds in the country’s military presence. 

“Our state constitutes three pillars of America’s military might. We just literally saw that we are the cornerstone of missile defense being at Fort Greely. We are the hub of air combat power for the Asia Pacific,” Sullivan said. “You’re seeing it right here at Eielson with 54 F-35s coming in the next couple years, with two squadrons of F-22s down at JBER. The state will have over 100 combat coded fifth generation fighters. I’m pretty sure there’s no place in the world that will have that kind of capability in terms of air force power.”

Mattis noted how impressed he was with Fort Greely. 

“That is a critical component in the American deterrent effort against the use of missiles against our country,” Mattis said. “It’s also a reminder of Alaska’s role in our nation’s defense. And geography matters, and even if something was called ‘Seward’s folly’ years ago when he bought it, I think we’re all so proud of Alaska now and the key role it plays in the defense of our country.”

Mattis said he considers the state, with its military installations, to be the center of defense for the U.S. in the Indo-Pacific region. 

“We could call it anything but a folly today where it is probably the gateway to the Pacific for us in many, many ways,” Mattis said. 

Mattis identified two areas of focus for Alaska’s military strategy, centered around an increased number of icebreakers and security in the changing Arctic, as well as finding a suitable mix of fighter jets to be stationed in the state. 

“The F-35 is going to be used by the Air Force, the Navy, the Marines, plus a host of allies. Inside the Department of Defense, we’re looking at what is the mix that we need on aircraft carrier decks. We’re looking at sustainment costs,” Mattis said. 

He added that the Defense Department is working on narrowing down the best way to incorporate the new jets. 

“We want to make sure it comes with the proper support facilities, the proper training facilities, all the things that keep an airplane flying,” Mattis said. “Notice we’re talking about how we’re going to incorporate it, we’re not talking about if it’s coming. It’s coming.”

Mattis noted that with the changing climate and warming oceans, the Arctic region is a whole new area for military exploration. 

“I think when we look at our relationship to the Arctic, you’ve got a number of nations in the Arctic Council, many of those are NATO nations — Denmark, Norway, Canada — and I think what we have to look at is how to work together,” Mattis said.

He added that he feels America needs to “up its game” in the Arctic.

“It’s cited as an area of concern with our national security strategy. Part of it will certainly see an increased Coast Guard presence, I believe, because, in fact, we have waterways that are open today that were not open five years ago,” Mattis said. “The reality is, we’re going to have to deal with the developing Arctic, and it is developing. It’s also going to open not only to transport but also to energy exploration.”

Sullivan confirmed that a request for six new icebreakers was included in this year’s National Defense Appropriations Act. 

Overall, Mattis said he is thrilled with Alaska’s military efforts and the part they play in national defense, noting Sullivan’s mention of the three pillars of Alaska’s military. 

“On that three legged stool, if we keep a balanced force on those lines, if we adapt to the changing situation we face in the Arctic, we’re in a very good position to address whatever happens,” Mattis said. “And there may be times we have to put more on one leg than another. But I think right now, as I look at it, it’s a pretty balanced program.”

Mattis stopped by Eielson Air Force Base on his way to Asia, but noted his time in the state was much more than just a refueling stop.

Contact staff writer Erin Granger at 459-7544. Follow her on Twitter:

@FDNMPolitics.