FAIRBANKS - The vast flying space available at Eielson Air Force Base may work against it as Alaska officials lobby to keep it operating at full strength.
Top Air Force officers in Washington, D.C. said Tuesday that military airspace in Alaska would be available for more training if Eielson's fighter wing moved to bases in the Lower 48.
That justification for the proposed near-elimination of a resident Air Force presence on the base emerged in response to a question from Anthony Principi, chairman of the Base Realignment and Closure Commission.
Principi noted that Eielson was one of two bases and numerous smaller installations the Air Force has proposed to keep in "warm" status, meaning they would stay open but host few resident personnel.
"Why?" he asked. "It costs a lot of money to maintain Eielson, just to keep it warm."
Maj. Gen. Gary Heckman, assistant deputy chief of staff for plans and programs, said the Air Force took note of Alaska's "superb" airspace. Instead of adding more fighter squadrons, the Air Force reviewers decided that pulling out the existing fighter wing would free up more opportunities to take advantage of the airspace, Heckman said.
The Air Force in 1997 secured training rights in the sky over about 60,000 square miles of Alaska. The plan, which ended three years of sometimes contentious public debate, cut back areas traditionally used by about 10,000 square miles but permanently reserved the 60,000 square miles. Until then, the Air Force had to apply regularly to the Federal Aviation Administration for the withdrawals.
At the time of the permanent designations, Air Force officials said it would make Alaska an attractive place for Outside military crews to practice.
Gen. John Jumper, Air Force chief of staff, said he expects the annual Cope Thunder training exercise would be able to accommodate more people and even operate all year if Eielson were realigned.
The proposed changes at Eielson "will allow us to take advantage of the magnificent ranges that exist up there," he told the base closure commission.
That argument for Eielson's transformation was not specifically mentioned in the Defense Department realignment and closure report released Friday.
"Eielson's military value is high because of its close proximity to valuable airspace and ranges," the summary stated. "Eielson is, however, an expensive base to operate and improve (build). The Air Force recommends realigning Eielson, but keeping the base open in a 'warm' status using the resident Air National Guard units and a portion of the infrastructure to continue operating the base for USAF/joint/combined exercises."