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Public Statements

National Defense Authorization Act of 2013

Floor Speech

By:
Date:
Location: Washington, DC

BREAK IN TRANSCRIPT

Ms. MURKOWSKI. Mr. President, the bill we have before us, the Defense authorization bill, we all recognize as a pretty special bill. Every year for the past 51 years Congress has sent to the President a Defense authorization bill which has been bipartisan in nature. Based upon the progress we have seen in this Chamber for these past several days, it appears this year will not be an exception.

I deeply appreciate the strong leadership of our colleagues, the Senator from Michigan and the Senator from Arizona, in managing this bill. They have put in countless hours and have worked to wade through nearly 400 amendments that Members have filed with respect to this bill. Not only the chairman and ranking member and their leadership, but their staffs have worked incredibly hard. So I am pleased with where we are.

I think the Chair probably knows I am one of those Members who doesn't have a tendency to pile on or add multiple amendments to this measure or to many measures, but on this bill I have broken with that practice by filing 10 amendments. Six of these amendments relate to frustrations I have experienced in responding to force structure changes that were announced by the Air Force this last February. I think we recognize that force structure changes can be a euphemism for realignments, and realignments are usually reserved for a BRAC round. But faced with the need to meet rigid fiscal year 2013 budget objectives, the Air Force didn't wait for a BRAC round and, instead, proposed a series of backdoor BRACs.

Most of these changes affected the Air National Guard and the Air Force Reserves. One of these changes would substantially realign and stop one step short of closing an Active-Duty air base, and I am referring to Eielson Air Force Base near Fairbanks, AK.

Last February, the Air Force informed the Alaska congressional delegation that it intended to make what they call a ``warm'' base out of Eielson and reduce its current population of about 3,000 airmen by half. The reduction would most profoundly affect the Active-Duty population, which would be reduced by about two-thirds. It would have led to the laying off of hundreds of civilian and contractor personnel.

In the words of one prominent Fairbanks community leader:

It's the Air Force's intention to change Eielson from a base that is mission capable to a base that is mission incapable.

The Air Force somehow concluded it could pull off a move of this magnitude without ever having to face the BRAC Commission or answer to Congress. That takes a little bit of chutzpah. The Air Force knew this was not going to sit well with the community. They promptly dispatched then-Chief of Staff GEN Norton Schwartz to Alaska for a meeting with community leaders. I appreciate his presence, and I was there when he spoke to those leaders. But his message didn't leave much room for optimism.

The Air Force official pretty much insisted this was a happening thing; that resistance was going to be futile. I have to admit it came as something as a surprise to me that the Air Force would select Eielson as the only Active-Duty base slated for a backdoor BRAC. For those who are not familiar with Eielson's strategic position, it sits at the gateway to the Pacific Area of Responsibility, the most strategically important Area of Responsibility, according to this administration's defense planner. It also sits at the front door of the Joint Pacific Alaska Range Complex, which the Air Force regards as its top unencroached training facility with tremendous future upside potential. But for some reason this is the Active-Duty base that the Air Force chose to essentially throw under the bus.

Unfortunately, this isn't the first time. Back in 2005, the Air Force proposed to warm base Eielson. The BRAC Commission rejected that proposal. They, instead, suggested the Air Force should place an F-16 Aggressor Squadron at Eielson to take advantage of its proximity to the Joint Pacific Alaska Range Complex. That Aggressor Squadron supports cutting edge exercises, such as Red Flag Alaska and Northern Edge--superior, phenomenal training exercises. Under the Air Force 2012 proposal, that squadron would now base at Joint Base Elmendorf Richardson, and they would essentially commute to future exercises launched out of Eielson Air Force Base.

So, Mr. President, I am left to conclude that perhaps there is somebody in the Air Force who, for whatever reason, doesn't like Eielson. I reach this conclusion with some hesitation and reluctance, but when I see the Air Force prepared to sacrifice a base with one of the longest runways in North America--it is a 14,531-foot runway, which I think the Chair can appreciate--it is significant. There are no encroachments, it has geographic superiority with respect to missions in the Pacific and, really, across the globe. So it really does cause me to wonder.

Since February, Senator Begich and I and our staffs have been in touch with the Air Force on an almost daily basis trying to understand the thinking of the Air Force. And it has been a moving target. It has been tough to pin down.

First, they claimed it would save money in 2013, and then they admitted that, well, a move would cost unbudgeted money in 2013. They next claimed the move could be accomplished without any NEPA review. Then they admitted that maybe an Environmental Impact Statement is going to be required. They concluded the move could be executable in 2013 because there was sufficient housing that was proximate to JBER, but then they came back and admitted their housing availability data had come primarily off of Craig's list.

Later, there was a more disciplined study conducted that demonstrated if the move were to be executed in 2013 there was not going to be housing that was sufficient and proximate to JBER in order to relocate the airmen, and there probably wouldn't be sufficient classroom seats for the military families either.

A whole series of issues have cropped up because they weren't thoroughly reviewed prior to the decision being made. So the Air Force has now conceded that its plans are not executable in fiscal year 2013. That is a wise decision, but it kind of begs the question: So what about the future?

The Air Force may deny, but I think reasonable minds could conclude, the Eielson plan is still moving full steam ahead. Let me offer the following in evidence of that. The Senate Appropriations Committee has directed the Air Force to spend no fiscal year 2013 money to implement the force structure change until the Commission on the Future Structure of the Air Force reports. I think that is a good thing, and I intend to argue Eielson's case before that Commission. But I would note that S. 3254 requires the Commission, which is only going to be created once the Defense authorization bill is signed into law, to report by March 31, 2013--essentially, a 3-month period. That is absolutely not adequate time for the rigorous analysis that is required. I have submitted an amendment this week, amendment 3135, which gives the commission an additional year to complete its work.

Now, notwithstanding this direction to stop, the Air Force has announced its plans to begin an Environmental Impact Statement on the Eielson downsizing. They have announced this will commence January 2013 using fiscal year 2012 money. I do agree an EIS is a legally required condition precedent to implementing the Air Force's structure changes at Eielson, and that if the Air Force ultimately intends to downsize Eielson and add airplanes and people to JBER, it will have to complete the NEPA. Moreover, an EIS process will offer the Alaska community an opportunity to weigh in and to vent their frustrations and concerns with the Air Force, which is appropriate. But one has to wonder after reading the Senate version of the Defense appropriations bill, what part of ``stop'' is the Air Force not understanding.

I actually put this question to them in writing in September. I still have not received a satisfactory answer. Several of the amendments I have introduced would bring this concept of ``stop'' into the Defense authorization bill, but there may be an alternative to offering them--a solution that I think could be a win for all.

It strikes me that an EIS is not going to address two questions I think are critical and I think should be answered before the EIS process begins. The first is whether it makes any sense at all to throw Eielson under the bus given its considerable strategic upside potential. And the second is whether the Air Force will truly achieve any cost savings by walking away from Eielson or simply transfer costs someplace else.

In addition, an EIS will not answer the question whether it makes sense for the Air Force to abandon a community that supports our airmen like no other community in the country. This is a community that loves to fly. You have people who have float planes and small aircraft and bush planes. Everybody is a pilot there. They love to fly. This community is more than willing to accommodate the Air Force's desire to conduct summer exercises at the expense of precious general aviation airspace, provided that the Air Force remains a good corporate citizen in the community.

My amendment No. 3156 is a good-faith effort to find that common ground with the Air Force. It requires the Air Force submit a report to the defense communities evaluating the upside potential of Eielson Air Force Base before it acts to tear down that base or relocate its assets.

I wish to take a minute here to speak to some of that upside potential, because I think it is considerable.

It is a well-known fact in interior Alaska that the Air Force publicly announced scoping on an EIS for F-35 basing at Eielson back in 2008. So in 2008 they are talking about bringing in the F-35s. Then in 2009, they walked away from that announcement but suggested that Eielson would be a desirable OCONUS basing location for the F-35. I might suggest that this abrupt downsizing that is being considered now of Eielson is inconsistent with that possible future use.

The 168th Air Refueling Wing of the Alaska National Guard fuels the North Pacific on a daily basis, every single day of the year. There has been some discussion about adding an active association and increasing the tanker presence proportionate to demand. But downsizing Eielson could undermine the efficiency of that operation.

I mentioned earlier the unencumbered airspace that Eielson has. This unencumbered airspace might make a perfect place for remote piloted vehicle testing. This is a mission that Senator Begich has been actively promoting for the past several years. So let's come to a conclusion about whether this is a viable possibility.

As the Pacific AOR becomes more important, Eielson might once again have the potential as a combat-coded fighter base given its proximity to the world's hotspots. But let's not also forget that Eielson is the air base closest to the Arctic and may certainly have new responsibilities in that rapidly changing part of the globe. That is one of the reasons why the Department of Homeland Security needs to be part of this ongoing conversation.

So before the Air Force moves to potentially throw away all of this and potentially demolish perfectly good facilities that might support future missions, I think it needs to take a good hard look at the upside of Eielson--not just merely recite the same old lines that, quite honestly, failed back in 2005. That goes to the substance of the Eielson decision.

I wish to spend a moment here to speak of the frustrations that I have had about process as we have gone through this since February. Congress has created a process to ensure that realignments that occur outside of BRAC rounds are vetted by the congressional defense committees. But like many laws, the Pentagon has been kind of looking around for loopholes and the Air Force has been pretty adept at identifying them--even if they might not actually be there. But there are some worthy amendments I have submitted that would close the loopholes. These are contained in 10 USC 993 and 10 USC 2687, and I hope they will be considered.

One of the more substantial loopholes that is contained in 10 USC 2687 would seem to allow the Defense Department to characterize a substantial reduction in civilian personnel as a reduction in force rather than a realignment. That loophole, if it does exist, needs to be closed.

Let me also note the difficulties we have had in obtaining information from the Air Force over the past several months. Just asking for specific information has been a struggle these past several months. Ask the Air Force a question, and you tend to get a heavily vetted and not terribly specific answer. Ask for documents explaining the deliberative process of the Air Force, and maybe you get one document months after you have asked for it. And, again, the document doesn't explain very much.

Perhaps it is time for personal offices to be able to use the Freedom of Information Act--the FOIA process--to get the documents they need in a timely fashion, as journalists do. My amendment No. 3143 would provide for an expedited review of FOIA requests pertaining to its activities in a Member's home State, with no fees charged for processing that request. I think it would perhaps level the playing field between the committees that can subpoena documents and personal offices that have a more limited option to obtain the documents they need.

I think it is a positive contribution to oversight and I hope others here in the Chamber will feel likewise. I will not be offering that amendment up at this point in time in the hopes that the Air Force is clear on my message, that I wish to find a way we can work more cooperatively with this information exchange and that there can be greater accommodation with the congressional request. I know that General Welsh, as the new Chief of Staff, intends to improve the Air Force relationships with the Congress. I have had a very positive conversation with him about that. I want to give him an opportunity to do so. I look forward to working with him on these issues and some of the others I have had an opportunity to raise with him.

I wish to conclude my remarks by again thanking the chairman and ranking member and all of the staffs for their yeomen's efforts on the bill, and I look forward to supporting final passage.

Mr. President, I yield the floor and I suggest the absence of a quorum.

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