Senator Lisa Murkowski testified today before the Commission on the Structure of the Air Force -- an independent panel designed by Congress to take a strategic view of the Air Force's future direction -- and pushed back on the United States Air Force proposal to transfer the F-16 Aggressor Squadron from Eielson Air Force Base to Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson and "warm base" Eielson.
Taking place less than a mile from the Pentagon, Murkowski's presentation touched on the potential harm that would be done to both Fairbanks and Anchorage if such a move occurred, and also questioned the internal reasoning behind downsizing Eielson at the same time that the Pentagon is exploring new missions and possibilities for it due to its strategic global position in the Pacific region. In her remarks to the Commission on the apparent rush to move forward, she said "the Air Force has confused ready, aim, fire with a fire, ready, aim" mentality.
Senator Murkowski opened her testimony by stressing the consensus opinion that Alaska's strategic location is the envy of the international military community.
I would hope that the Commission would find significant fault with the Air Force's proposal to stage a "back door" BRAC of Eielson. Let me begin by noting that Eielson Air Force base offers a number of very unique advantages to the Air Force -- the most important of all is its geographic advantage. The Alaska congressional delegation is very fond of quoting General Billy Mitchell's 1935 observation -- I believe that, in the future, whoever holds Alaska will hold the world I think it is the most important strategic place in the world.
Later in the speech, Murkowski pointed out that not only are the purported savings gained by the F-16 transfer highly dubious, but that the Anchorage community surrounding JBER would have great difficulty absorbing the 542 relocated airmen and their families. The United States Air Force itself has admitted it conducted housing research by consulting Craigslist.
The Air Force's sole rationale for this move is that it could save $227 million over five years from downsizing Eielson largely through the elimination of personnel and consolidating Alaska operations at Elmendorf. Whether this would be the case remains to be seen because Elmendorf is pretty full at the moment and hardly underutilized. And given that one still can't maintain a warm base in a cold place it is speculative whether any utility cost savings could be realized by downsizing Eielson
Disappointingly I came to learn that in a panic to find cost savings at the end of 2011, the Air Force largely used back of the envelope calculations to arrive at these cost savings. And it has done little more to objectively validate them since. Nor does it really have a good handle on whether there is room at JBER for increased aircraft operations. The Air Force is claiming there is sufficient housing in the community to accommodate some 542 relocating airmen and their families but the local community itself is very skeptical. You would think they would welcome them, because it would help the economy. But no -- the schools are full, and there is no available housing in the community. In fact, the Mayor of Anchorage has come out in opposition to the Air Force's plan.
Murkowski also noted the contradictions at play, noting that while the Air Force has "set off a panic in Interior Alaska" with its proposal, the Pentagon is sending mixed signals by considering new possible missions for Eielson like the F-35s and other scenarios presented by increased Arctic activity.
The Air Force must do its homework before putting a proposal out in public.
And let me say that the Air Force has set off a panic in Interior Alaska through its announcement that Eielson will be downsized. We've seen real estate values sink, businesses have deferred new investments, and teachers are uncertain how long they will have their jobs. Existing mortgages, including those held by airmen, are under water. And airmen are uncertain whether the Housing Assistance Program will step in to help them in the event that the downsizing is consummated.
Last September, the Air Force offered a revelation. Perhaps the Eielson decision is unwarranted. After all, Eielson is a promising location to site the OCONUS F-35, there may be a need to upgrade the tanker squadron, the Army is interested in siting a UAV mission in Interior Alaska and the US will have additional defense and security needs going forward in a changing Arctic. To its credit, the Air Force agreed to not take any adverse action to Eielson in 2013 and to spend this year completing a strategic analysis and a re-evaluation of the purported cost savings. In my view that's the right way to go. It's what the Air Force should have done in the beginning. It boosts credibility.
But bent on snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, the Air Force is also undertaking a parallel NEPA review toward a record of decision supporting the downsizing of Eielson in 2014.
Murkowski closed her remarks on a note of blunt frustration about the manner in which the Air Force has unveiled the plan without sufficiently explaining their methodology of larger goal in mind.
It seems like we are looking at a situation where the Air Force has confused ready, aim, fire with fire, ready, aim. In Alaska we've come to refer to the Air Force strategy as good cop/bad cop on a polite day and speaking out of both sides of its mouth on an impolite one. Suffice it to say, it is not the way I would expect the greatest Air Force in the world to be doing its business.