ANCHORAGE - The U.S. Air Force is scrapping its plan to move a fighter jet squadron to Anchorage from Fairbanks, and will not put Eielson Air Force Base in part-time status, Alaska's congressional delegation announced Wednesday.
U.S. Sens. Mark Begich and Lisa Murkowski made the announcement on a joint teleconference with U.S. Rep. Don Young, all of whom had joined community leaders in protesting the plan since the Air Force first announced it nearly two years ago.
"This was a decision that was clearly in the best interest of Alaska and the Air Force," Murkowski said shortly after the delegation was informed of the decision by Acting Secretary of the Air Force Eric Fanning and Pacific Air Forces Gen. Hawk Carlisle
A message left by The Associated Press after business hours with the Department of Defense was not immediately returned.
The Air Force had proposed moving 21 F-16 fighter jets comprising the 18th Fighter Aggressor Squadron from Eielson Air Force Base in Fairbanks to Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson in Anchorage in a move that would save the Air Force about $200 million. It would also require relocating about 1,200 military members and family to Anchorage.
The proposal drew protests from community members in Fairbanks, North Pole and Salcha, saying the move would be devastating to the local economy. Anchorage leaders also wondered where those relocated would find housing in an already-tight market.
Murkowski said Air Force leaders told them they were reversing course for three reasons. One was to reaffirm the significance of Eielson Air Force base to both Alaska and the Pacific Theater. She said leaders also indicated that not only would the cost savings estimate not be realized, but the move would come at a cost to the military. The third reason given was that the Air Force noted the impact it would have on the Alaska communities involved.
Murkowski credited military leaders for going back and revisiting what they heard from community members at several town hall meetings. "That can be tough to do," she said.
The Defense Department had previously recommended Eielson for "warm" status, a part-time base where squadrons from other bases could use for training after moving the jets.
Begich said this is not a one-year decision, but a long-term win for Eielson after military leaders rebalanced bases in the Pacific region. "Eielson is a critical part of that, proven by this decision today," he said.
Young said the importance of Alaska's location cannot be overlooked, with quick access to Europe and Asia.
"We are always going to sit on the same place on the globe," Murkowski said, noting they may have to re-educate future military and congressional leaders of that. "We have a strategic advantage, that's a constant."
All three also noted what they called Alaska's unequaled space for training both in the air and on the ground.
The Air Force on Thursday could release criteria for where it will eventually locate an F-35 squadron. Begich said he's hopeful they will find a home at Eielson and training partners with the F-16s.
"We're willing and waiting," said Fairbanks Mayor Jerry Cleworth.