Alaska Sens. Murkowski, Begich pressing on Eielson's future

FAIRBANKS—Alaska’s two U.S. senators continued their push this week to convince the Air Force to keep a squadron of F-16 fighter aircraft at Eielson Air Force Base.

Sen. Mark Begich, in a Friday interview from Anchorage, said he is “80 percent assured that the F-16s will continue to be placed here at Eielson.”

Begich, a Democrat, said he met recently with Gen. Mark A. Welsh III, the Air Force chief of staff, and came away feeling positive about Eielson’s future.

“I feel very good where we are at, that we are moving in the right direction,” Begich said regarding the F-16s. “I think also the chance of us now having some acknowledgment of the need of stationing F-35s in Alaska, in the Fairbanks region, has also become stronger because of all of the activity going on in world.”

Sen. Lisa Murkowski submitted comments Friday at the close of the Air Force’s public comment period on the draft environmental impact statement about moving Eielson’s F-16s — the 18th Aggressor Squadron — to Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson in Anchorage. Murkowski, a Republican, continues to argue the Air Force should suspend the environmental study process until larger questions about the basing of the nation’s F-35 squadrons is settled.

The F-35 fighter is a replacement for several types of fighter aircraft used by the various branches of the military. Eielson has been reported to be a leading contender for hosting a squadron based somewhere in the Pacific Rim. Competing locations are in Alaska, Hawaii, or Guam or at a U.S. base in South Korea or Japan.

Murkowski’s comments centered on public remarks made in July by Gen. Herbert “Hawk” Carlisle, commander of Pacific Air Forces. Carlisle spoke favorably of Eielson at an event in Washington, D.C., hosted by the Defense Writers Group.

“Eielson fares very well, mostly because of the training space, the range,” Carlisle said. “JPARC (the Joint Pacific Alaska Range) is an outstanding range. The infrastructure is already there and available, so the MilCon (military construction) to build is lower. And it’s part of the Pacific in that it can get to Northeast Asia rapidly and it also has the ability, obviously, to travel in the rest of the Asia Pacific area.

“The challenge obviously with Alaska is location,” he said. “For some places, for the Koreans and the Japanese it’s very easy to get there and participate and for us to go the other direction. South and West is a little bit more of a challenge.”

Murkowski, who also met recently with Welsh, wrote in her Friday comments on the F-16 environmental study that Carlisle’s statements amount to a “sea change which undermines the rationale for relocation of the 18th Aggressor Squadron and downsizing the remaining wing overhead and base operations support at Eielson Air Force Base.”

Murkowski added that she believes further work on the environmental impact statement on moving the F-16s to Anchorage should be suspended until decisions are made about bringing other missions — such as the F-35 — to Eielson.

“The time has come for the Air Force to formally admit what senior leaders have long admitted privately,” she wrote. “The proposal to relocate the 18th Aggressor Squadron and downsize Eielson Air Force Base was ill advised from its inception and should be shelved.”

Air Force leaders are expected to announce a basing decision for the F-35s by the end of the year.

Begich said that Welsh, the Air Force chief of staff, has been given a draft of a strategic assessment of forces in the Pacific Rim region. That document likely includes information about where to base the F-35s.

“That draft will have a list (of possible bases) or a basing decision,” Begich said. “We don’t have a final decision, but I’m feeling good on it.”



Source: By Rod Boyce, Fairbanks Daily News Miner