The following editorial first appeared in the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner:
The Interior got some of the best news Thursday that residents have seen all year. After a lengthy selection process, the Air Force announced it has picked Eielson Air Force Base as the preferred location for two squadrons of its next-generation F-35 fighter jets. It’s a decision that has the potential to benefit local communities for decades. It’s also a ringing endorsement of the military and strategic importance of the base, which local, state and national leaders have touted both in attempts to save Eielson from downsizing and closure and in the fight to bring in new units like the F-35s.
Before we get ahead of ourselves, there are still a few hoops to jump through before the jets wing their way into Eielson’s expansive training space. The final decision will hinge on the successful completion of an environmental impact statement, slated to be done by November of 2015. That study could still raise issues with Eielson’s selection if it identifies obstacles that can’t be overcome. It’s a road Eielson has been down before, as a draft EIS was completed when the Air Force was considering the transfer of the base’s F-16 Aggressor Squadron to Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson in Anchorage. That study didn’t identify any massive weaknesses in Eielson’s ability to house aircraft and their crews, and though the needs of the F-35s will be different, the parameters under study will likely be similar.
Assuming the base clears the EIS hurdle, the creation of about 3,000 jobs at Eielson (as estimated by a Fairbanks Economic Development Corp.) will be a tremendous economic boon for the area. FEDC estimates that those jobs will mean an additional $379 million in new payroll for the area, which will touch virtually every sector of the local economy.
At the same time, there are reasons to consider the economic influx in a sober light. Fairbanks and the Interior already lean heavily on government-funded institutions like the military and the University of Alaska for economic stability. Recent state and federal cost-cutting has shown the danger in depending too much on public money, and in both cases the mentality of looking for savings and trying to cut oversized budgets doesn’t augur well for communities like ours in which they are the top employers and economic drivers. We shouldn’t see the economic benefits of the potential F-35 placement as an excuse to ease back on efforts to diversify our economy so that our community can better withstand state and federal budget crunches.
We also shouldn’t let the fact that F-35s are very likely headed our way cloud our judgment in assessing the aircraft itself. The F-35 has a well-publicized history of setbacks on its way to production, and costs per aircraft have increased significantly over the past seven years as work on the plane has progressed. We hope that these issues can be resolved, as it would be unacceptable to put our fighting men and women into an aircraft that doesn’t give them the best tools and capabilities to defend the nation.
The Air Force’s decision to advance Eielson as the clear favorite to house F-35s is a testament to the work done at all levels of our community and state and also to that done by those in the Department of Defense who saw the strategic advantages in location and training offered by Interior Alaska. We’ll be eagerly awaiting a final decision in November of next year, and — assuming a positive outcome at that juncture — the planes’ arrival in 2019. But we won’t forget that work must continue elsewhere to build the Interior community that we deserve, as do as the Air Force pilots, families and other service members who we hope will be our neighbors.