Fairbanks Daily News-Miner: Alaska legislators push Eielson as new home for F-35s

FAIRBANKS — Alaska’s congressional delegation has sent a letter to the Secretary of the Air Force urging him to station the new F-35 Joint Strike Fighter at Eielson Air Force Base.

The letter, dated Oct. 1 and signed by Rep. Don Young and Sens. Mark Begich and Lisa Murkowski, calls Eielson “the perfect base geographically” for the fighters, given the large amount of available airspace.

The letter to Air Force Secretary Michael Donley also touts the strategic importance of Alaska in facing possible future threats from China, Russia and North Korea.

“Alaska is on the front lines when it comes to adversarial countries like North Korea and should be at the forefront of defense technology,” Young said in a statement. “Eielson is the best place for the F-35s, and I hope that the Department of Defense can recognize that.”

One flight-ready F-35 costs $83 million to produce and is capable of close air support, tactical bombing and air defense missions. Three variants of the F-35, each capable of a different type of takeoff and landing, are being produced by Lockheed Martin.

The Air Force is reviewing which of the more than 200 U.S. military bases worldwide will receive the fighters. An announcement narrowing the list of prospective bases to six is expected Thursday.

In October 2008, an Eielson spokesman said the base, along with Shaw Air Force Base in South Carolina, Mountain Home Air Force Base in Idaho, Moody Air Force Base in Georgia, Hill Air Force Base in Utah and Eglin Air Force Base in Florida, were in the final running to receive the F-35. The fighter likely will go to more than one of those bases.

No formal announcement was made by Air Force higher-ups. Air Force Secretary Michael W. Wynne and Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. T. Michael Moseley resigned in June 2008 following discovery of lapses in the Air Force’s handling of nuclear weapons and fuses and in nuclear stockpile security. Donley was sworn in as Air Force secretary in October 2008.

Members of Congress with military bases in their districts reportedly have been vigorously lobbying Air Force officials to bring the stealth-capable F-35 to their states.

According to one local observer, the makeup of Alaska’s congressional delegation could be one factor hurting Eielson’s chances of getting the new fighter. Last year, when it was announced the F-35 was coming to Eielson, Alaska was represented by Sen. Ted Stevens, whose seniority made him the top Republican on the Senate Appropriations Committee’s defense panel.

Begich defeated Stevens in last year’s election.

“It is a huge liability,” said Jim Dodson, president and CEO for the Fairbanks Economic Development Corp. “If you can imagine, they only built 180 F-22s, and two wings were stationed at Elmendorf.”

Dodson said even if Eielson doesn’t receive an F-35 wing in 2012 when the planes are introduced, they could come to Alaska a few years later.

Bringing the F-35 to Eielson and the construction that would come with it is a potential boon for the base and surrounding areas.

“We in the borough and FEDC have worked very hard to ensure Eielson is on the short list,” said Jim Whitaker, Fairbanks North Star Borough mayor.

Source: By Chris Freiberg. Originally published in the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner on October 23, 2009