Things have returned to near-normal for Alaska’s military forces, but it has been a tough year of budget sequestration cuts, furloughs of civilian workers and cancelled military exercises and training, Air Force Lt. Gen. Russell Handy told state legislators in Juneau in a Feb. 13 briefing.
The good news is that a budget has been passed by Congress and signed by the president.
“We have some budget stability now, even if it is not what we wanted,” Handy told House and Senate members of the Joint Armed Services Committee.
Handy did the briefing, an annual event for the Legislature, along with Army Major Gen. Michael Shields and Alaska’s Adjutant General, Major Gen. Thomas Katkus, who commands the Alaska Army and Air National Guard.
Handy told the legislators that Alaska’s military population now includes 23,400 active duty personnel, the vast majority Air Force, Army and Coast Guard; 35,200 dependents; 4,800 civilian workers and 1,800 other Department of Defense personnel.
There are still Alaska-based forces deployed, about 1,350 at present, Handy said.
“We expect this to come down a little and be stable, but there will always be deployments, ranging between 1,000 and as many as 1,500,” he said.
Air Force equipment now deployed includes F-22 Raptors in the Middle East as well as E-3 AWACs aircraft. U.S. Army units are also in the Middle East.
One item of interest from the briefing is on the potential basing of advanced F-35 fighters at Eielson Air Force Base near Fairbanks. Eielson is among the bases being considered.
“We expect to hear something later this month on the bases listed as final candidates. I expect Eielson to be one of those. The selection for the final list will trigger an environmental analysis. The ‘mission capability’ of the location and the environmental effects will be key factors in the final selection,” Handy said.
Other new developments from Handy’s briefing include that Clear Air Force Station, near Nenana, is being considered for installation of a new advanced-technology radar system for enemy missile detection. Clear is already being upgraded this year, Handy said.
Those improvements signal the Pentagon’s intention of further developing Alaska’s capability in missile defense. New missile interceptors and other facilities are also being added at Fort Greely, the nation’s only ballistic missile interceptor launch site, Handy said.
Alaska Army commander Major Gen. Shields said the approximately 12,000 Army troops based in Alaska, now split about equally between Fort Wainwright at Fairbanks and Fort Richardson in Anchorage, will shift somewhat to the advantage of Fort Wainwright. The troops at JBER will be reduced but those at Fort Wainwright will increase, he said.
“We’re going to be growing Fort Wainwright,” Shields said, but a shortage of barracks is still a problem and getting new barracks is now the top priority for the Army post, he said.
Handy also said the Air Force Thunderbirds, the aerial demonstration team, will return to Alaska for the Arctic Thunder air show now scheduled at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson on July 26 and 27. About 235,000 are expected at the air show, he said.
Air shows and the Thunderbirds demonstrations around the country were shut down last year as a part of budget sequestration. They are now being resumed, along with training exercises, but the July demonstration by the Thunderbirds will be the team’s only show this year outside the continental U.S., Handy said.
“We have very strict funding limits for the show, so we’re actively looking for partners,” as co-sponsors, he said.
In another new development, Shields said his Alaska Army forces will step up Arctic climate and mountain warfare training this year with U.S. Middle East commitments winding down. That will allow Alaskan forces to resume their traditional focus on northern climate readiness, he said.
This year will also see a first-ever parachute drop of troops with equipment on the North Slope, near Deadhorse, a unusual spectacle for oil field workers, Shields said.
Handy said there is still a need for vigilance in watching Russian air activity near Alaska’s borders.
“The Russians are very active in the Arctic and in long-range aviation, so much that we have to go out and look at what they are doing occasionally,” Handy said.
On the other hand, U.S. and Russian forces still cooperate in a joint exercise that involve dealing with a simulated aircraft hijack that crosses the border between the two nations, he said.
Handy said the federal budget sequestration was difficult for the military last year because the reductions, announced in March 2013, had to be absorbed in seven remaining months of the federal fiscal year. The effect on the Air Force in Alaska was a $14.2 million reduction for that period, he said.
Although President Barack Obama has signed a new appropriations bill the measure did not restore any of the money cut during sequestration and also reduced Air Force operations and maintenance and minimized the ability to transfer funds within defense department agencies.
Within Alaska, the Air Force had to temporarily ground fighters at Eielson Air Force Base near Fairbanks, do reduced flying with other units, cancel the big Northern Edge exercise, and two or three “Red Flag” aerial combat training sessions, which are done with air defense units from other nations.
About 5,100 civilian defense workers had to be furloughed, Handy said. They are now back at work, but the experience “has created a lot of uncertainty. A lot of people are not quite as comfortable working for the federal government now,” he said.
Despite all this, the Alaska-based units continue to be upgraded with new capabilities. The Alaska-based F-22 Raptors, for example, are now the most capable of any in the Air Force after having been equipped with new digital mapping technology that gives the aircraft the capability of delivering small-diameter bombs with precision.
“No other (F-22) units have yet received these modifications, so this is a unique capability for us,” and is one reason why the Alaska-based F-22s are in so much demand in the Middle East.
Another capability, actually devised by a group of active duty and reservist pilots, is the “Rapid Raptor” concept that is being tested in Alaska, Handy said. It involves the rapid deployment of Raptors to a “forward” airfield with support C-17s landing just behind the fighters.
“This gives us the ability to turn the aircraft around,” quickly on missions in forward areas, Handy said. “We’ve done a proof-of-concept for this in Alaska with a full-wing exercise,” in early February, he said. “This gives us a new operational capability here to work with groups of six, 12 and 18 aircraft.”