FAIRBANKS - Alaskans may be outraged at the very thought of stripping Eielson Air Force Base of most of its personnel and planes, but for some outside analysts, the Pentagon's proposal is based on sound logic.
"One of the things that you clearly see, as you look at the decisions that the Pentagon has made, is a drawing back from our Cold War posture, and I view the Alaska decisions as part of that," said Chris Hellman with the Center for Arms Control and Non-proliferation, a Washington, D.C.-based think-tank. "A lot of our basing strategy was based for half a century on Russians coming, and they're not coming anymore."
The Fairbanks-area base is among those targeted by the U.S. Department of Defense for cost-cutting changes or shutdowns and will be the first examined at a public hearing by an independent panel appointed to assess the recommendations. Four members of the nine-member Base Realignment and Closure Commission are scheduled to be Fairbanks Wednesday for the hearing.
On Tuesday, the commissioners will be in Anchorage to tour Kulis Air Guard Station and Elmendorf Air Force Base. Under the DOD proposal, Elmendorf would be realigned to become a joint base with nearby Fort Richardson and would have aircraft and personnel from Kulis Air Guard Station, which would be closed.
Eielson's future, according to top Pentagon officials and a number of military analysts, is in training, not guarding against Russian bombers or waiting for a call to some hot spot in Asia. Alaska's big land and sky, they say, ought to be available not only to the military personnel stationed at Eielson but also to others in units from across the country and globe. Traditional air security can be handled by the F-15s, and soon F/A-22s, at Elmendorf Air Force base near Anchorage, they say.
But others, including Alaska's business and elected leaders, bring up the oft-repeated argument that the state's location is closer to Asia and northern Europe than any other major domestic base. They also question the idea of relocating Eielson's fleet of fighter planes just as cross-training opportunities open with the new Stryker Brigade at nearby Fort Wainwright.
The Pentagon's proposal would send Eielson's 18 F-16s to Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada. Twelve A-10s would go to Moody Air Force Base in Georgia, three would go to Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana and the remaining three would have no specified location.
With the jets would go more than 2,800 military personnel by 2008. An Air National Guard unit with about 580 part- and full-time employees and eight KC-135 refueling tankers would remain. The Pentagon's plan also recommends removing 42 F-15s from Elmendorf, leaving 18. The initial job losses there would come close to 1,000 but would soon be offset by the arrival of F/A-22s starting in 2007. Also, a group of large Air Force C-17 transport planes would go to Elmendorf in 2008.
It is unnecessary to have two major fighter bases in Alaska, said Michael O'Hanlon, a senior fellow with the Brookings Institution, a Washington, D.C.-based think-tank.
"Regrettably, I think I have to agree with the Pentagon on this one," O'Hanlon said. "It is important to have some air capability in Alaska, because it is the perimeter of the country, but the F-15s at Elmendorf are sufficient."
U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, has said the A-10s are in Alaska as backup for U.S. ground forces on the Korean Peninsula, for example. The A-10s are designed specifically to support ground troops. In Alaska, the aircraft are closer to Korea than they would be at other U.S. domestic bases, Stevens points out.
Hellman and O'Hanlan don't give much merit to that argument.
"Having strike aircraft like the A-10 based in Alaska makes no sense whatsoever," Hellman said. "Part of the reason those aircraft are where they are is the power of the congressional delegation, who have drawn resources in there. What the Pentagon is saying is this is not a rational distribution of our resources. And it's going to be really hard for communities around the country to argue with that."
O'Hanlon said the few hours of flying time that Alaska's location might save don't make much difference.
"It's a marginal argument that works in favor of Alaska, but very marginally," he said. It's really a better argument to put the planes in South Korea or Japan, he said.
Stevens has said Alaska's fighters also protect Alaska's security-sensitive spots, such as the trans-Alaska oil pipeline and the anti-missile interceptor site at Fort Greely.
Hellman said fighters aren't relevant.
"I suspect that if terrorists were going after the pipeline, they wouldn't be using a bomber," he said.
A price tag may be the biggest deciding factor in the end. The Air Force projected that changes related primarily to Eielson would save about $229 million - a figure questioned by Eielson supporters.
The Air Force calculates its savings using a computer model called COBRA, for the Cost of Base Realignment Action. The model was used in previous BRAC rounds. The Government Accountability Office, the watchdog agency for Congress, "has consistently cited the use of the COBRA model as effective for estimating costs and savings," according to the Department of Defense's "Results and Processes" report on the 2005 BRAC process.