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Alaska editorial: Martial economics

Posted: February 19, 2012 - 1:10am

This editorial first appeared in the Anchorage Daily News:

Alaska’s military installations are part of both the nation’s front-line defense and key deployment points for overseas duty. Alaska is an excellent home for the U.S. military. No state has a warmer welcome for the troops. No state matches our percentage of military veterans. No state provides the combination of air, land and sea training opportunities.

Alaska’s military installations and personnel also are major players in the state’s economy, especially in Anchorage and Fairbanks.

Hence the genuine fear of hard times in the Fairbanks area with the Air Force proposal to transfer F-16 fighters from Eielson Air Force Base to Joint Base Elmendorf Richardson in Anchorage.

The transfer, which would include deep cuts and/or transfers of both military and civilian workers, would deal a hard blow to business in Fairbanks — and could foretell an even tougher loss in that a smaller Eielson could again be a target for closure.

So it’s natural that Alaska’s congressional delegation, the governor and state lawmakers are mobilizing to oppose any and all reductions in Alaska.

But the introduction of legislation by Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Mark Begich to prohibit the Air Force from moving any F-16s, and further of requiring the service to keep the same number or more of the fighter jets based at Eielson beginning in fiscal year 2013, is over the top.

The senators appear to be trying to micromanage military deployment for the sake of Alaska economic impact, and that’s shortsighted at best. They’re not the first and won’t be the last. Politicians defend their states’ military bases with the passion of the men at the Alamo, and often with greater success. The reasons are obvious. Nobody wants to lose Uncle Sam’s payroll, and military leaders don’t want to lose lawmakers’ support. But being an economic engine is not the first job of the U.S. military.

The first job of the U.S. military is to defend the United States at home and abroad. To do that, the military needs enough leeway to make changes that serve that mission first and foremost. And now, at the behest of Congress and the needs of the nation, the military has been told to make substantial budget cuts -- or at least deep cuts in budget growth. So military leaders have to figure out more cost effective ways to carry out their mission.

If every move they seek to make in the United States is blocked by local concerns, where are the cuts supposed to come?

Overseas, say the critics. Some lawmakers argue that Americans shouldn’t have to take any economic hits at home until the military shuts down what some call “Cold War relics” abroad.

If they are no more than relics, they should close long before we see Eielson’s F-16s go south and take livelihoods with them — even to Anchorage, because we’d rather share the wealth with our neighbors in Fairbanks. But the United States is a world power in a volatile world. Some of those overseas bases may be more vital to U.S. interests than some on the home front. A simple formula of overseas closures first won’t work.

People in Fairbanks successfully rallied to keep Eielson from closure in 2005. They may do the same on the F-16 transfer. Politics plays its role in military decisions — with community support part of the equation. And if senators and others can show the savings are small compared to the impact on the local economy, then there’s a sound case to leave the jets where they are.

But to tie the military’s hands with Senate legislation in order to protect local economies isn’t wise leadership or good lawmaking. It’s a blunt expression of self-interest first.

Sen. Begich has said that the Pentagon is playing politics too, trying to shift the onus of cuts to Congress. We’d like to see less politics and more leadership all the way around.

Military has to put mission first — and our leaders must recognize that.

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