Alaska editorial: Was Alaska asleep at the switch concerning military base closings?

Posted: Wednesday, May 25, 2005

All along, as the days passed toward the time when Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was to announce his recommendations for military base closures and realignments, we had an uneasy feeling that the state government and the cities of Anchorage and Fairbanks were taking things all too casually. No need to worry, seemed to be the feeling.

The ax fell earlier this month. Kulis Air Station is to be closed. Fort Richardson is to be "consolidated" with Elmendorf Air Force Base. And, basically, the plug was pulled on Eielson Air Force Base near Fairbanks.

Thousands of jobs headed south. Devastating news for the economy of Fairbanks and suburban North Pole.

In contrast, the state of Washington made out very well, indeed. Naval Station Bremerton will pick up 1,400 personnel under the Rumsfeld plan. Fort Lewis would gain 230. Whidbey Island Naval Air Station and Naval Station Everett escaped significant cuts. Fairchild Air Force Base near Spokane - which some thought faced possible elimination - took a small hit, the loss of 198 people. McChord Air Force Base, which adjoins Fort Lewis south of Tacoma, was targeted for a 576-personnel cut, but Fort Lewis will pick up 230.

Despite those cuts, Washington state will see a net gain of 800 military personnel.

"Overall, I'm very pleased," said Rep. Norm Dick, D-Wash., the state's senior congressional member. "These are realignments," he told the Seattle Times, "and nothing major was closed. I'm thrilled we don't have any real problems."

One reason, we suspect, is that the local communities involved had conducted a full-court press for months on end, meeting regularly with Pentagon officials to extol the military importance of the Washington state facilities.

The same sort of ongoing effort, we understand, was made by other communities that managed to escape significant cuts - with regular and continuing meetings to point out the ways their local bases fit the guidelines set out in advance by the Pentagon.

In our view, the proposed shuttering of Eielson makes absolutely no sense. Eielson is critically important to the defense of the Alaska mainland and to the Air Force because it offers by far the most expansive air space for training available anywhere in the United States.

But for some reason that message didn't penetrate the Pentagon echelons responsible for drafting the Rumsfeld edict.

Alaska fell asleep. Overconfidence, perhaps, killed us.

The announced cuts are not final. But the prospects of overturning Rumsfeld's recommendations are slim. It will take a vote by at least seven of the nine members of the Base Relocation and Closure Commission to add to or subtract from the Rumsfeld list.

That's a super majority that will be tough to achieve.



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