Keeping base closures isn't about economy, but security

Posted: Wednesday, July 13, 2005

As I read the recent announcements on the U.S. military closures being considered by the Base Realignment and Closure Commission, I was reminded of an address given a few years ago by Leon Panetta, White House Chief of Staff under President Clinton and a former Congressman from Monterey, Calif. His topic then was an earlier round of base closings. Fort Ord, a large Army training post, was located in his district. Because the Army had large infrastructure investments at Ord, he and others believed the fort was safe from closure. Not so. Ord was closed in the 1991 BRAC round. Therefore, to some, BRAC may appear illogical.

Alaska's governor and U.S. Senators have already announced plans to testify before the BRAC Commission to urge reconsideration. But it is important to remember that the commission will hear the same message about lost jobs and devastated economies in locations throughout the country until September, when its recommendations will be sent to the president. A better approach would be to emphasize the strategic military importance of Alaska to the entire Pacific, not just the local economic impacts.

For years, military strategists and political leaders have emphasized the importance of Alaska in the defense of our country. Military forces based here provide a top-cover shield for North America. That was true during the Cold War, due to our proximity to the USSR. And it's no less true today, although some threats have changed.

Alaska's large air and ground training areas are unequaled. Ground units here are co-located with air bases, making efficient deployments and joint training possible. All this makes Alaska unique, or so we thought; so it is understandable that our leaders were surprised by the latest BRAC announcement, which effectively reduces Eielson AFB to standby status. Air Force leaders have testified that Eielson would continue to be active as an exercise location where its Cope Thunder operations are held. That may be so, but units in transit are different from resident military units, and they also affect local economies differently.

What is puzzling is the proposed removal from Eielson of its Air Force A-10 Squadron, a unit designed for low-level support of ground forces. One of the prime tenets of modern military operations is "jointness." The proximity of Eielson to Fort Wainwright, where the Army's newest Striker Brigade Combat Team is located makes this arrangement ideal for joint training. Those A-10s should be training jointly with Striker ground units, and should deploy and a joint team. You train together to fight together.

Based on past experience, changing the Pentagon's mind is hard to do; and no one knows that better than Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska. But a compelling case can be made that Alaska's assets are not fluff; they are real. While every state will claim the same, Alaska is different. If you doubt that, look at a good map of the Pacific rim, running up the west coast of North America from Panama, turning west at Alaska, and continuing south along Russian Siberia, North and South Korea, China and Taiwan, Japan and the Philippines - reaching even to Indonesia and India. And please don't leave out Hawaii.

The Pacific is fast becoming a nerve center of the new global economy, as well as a geo-political flashpoint where competing national interests can collide. We have known this was coming for years, and now it's a reality. American political, economic and military attention paid to the nations that border the Pacific can only increase. Many of our larger trading partners are there, as are growing Asian military capabilities.

While China is the most obvious emerging giant, please remember that, as a member of U.N. forces, the United States is technically still at war in Korea; and the North Korean regime is unpredictable at best. This fact becomes very important in view of U.S. military reductions on the Korean Peninsula. Above all, we must not give potential adversaries the impression that the U.S. has militarily discounted any part of the Pacific, since relations among nations are often matters of perception, and miscalculations have occurred throughout the history of warfare. These base closures are not just about Alaska; they are about the nation and the world.

• Retired Major General Jake Lestenkof of Anchorage is the former adjutant general of the Alaska National Guard and the commissioner of the Alaska Department of Military and Veterans Affairs.

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