FAIRBANKS - The military still has an important mission in Alaska, even if Eielson Air Force Base is not among the first to receive the new F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, the chief of staff for the Air Force said.
Gen. Norton A. Schwartz spoke with reporters Friday before his appearance at a military-appreciation banquet staged by the Greater Fairbanks Chamber of Commerce.
He told the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner that Eielson Air Force Base, which was scheduled to close in 2005, is "vitally important" to the Air Force and to protecting American power in the Pacific.
Eielson has seen growth as a training installation in recent years, but many people in Alaska were disheartened last year when the Air Force announced the base would not be among the first to receive the new F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.
"From a military point of view, this is a very key place and for all of our soldiers, airmen, sailors and Marines to train in this place is literally incomparable," said Schwartz, a former commander of Alaska Command.
The base was first identified in 2008 as being on a short list of installations considered for the next generation fighter, but 2009 rankings released by the Air Force labeled it as being in the middle third of more than 200 possible bases.
Schwartz said it made more sense to station the first batch of F-35s elsewhere, but he did not rule out sending the fighters to Eielson in the future.
He also rejected speculation that the decision not to base F-35s at Eielson had anything to do with longtime Sen. Ted Stevens losing his bid for re-election in 2008. Stevens was well-known for steering money and military contracts to his home state.
"Ted Stevens was a major figure and we all respected him as we do Sen. Mark Begich," Schwartz said. "He was in the Senate many terms and no doubt he had a great influence, but I would not say he was of key importance to this place."
Schwartz also said that with trillion-dollar federal deficits over the next 10 years, there will be pressure on the defense budget, and the Air Force might have to cut staff, Schwartz said.
More people have been entering the military or lengthening their enlistments due to the recession, and the Air Force has about 4,000 more airmen than required - a number that is expected to rise next year.