Commission decides to keep some fighter planes at Eielson

Panel members call base major line of defense in the north

Posted: Friday, August 26, 2005

ANCHORAGE - Eielson Air Force Base would keep half its fighter planes under a revised plan approved Thursday by a federal commission that concluded that stripping the base in Interior Alaska would be a mistake.

For months, Alaskans lobbied to keep Eielson open, arguing that the Pentagon's plan to all but close it would devastate the local economy while putting the nation's security at great risk.

The Base Realignment and Closure Commission agreed, rejecting the proposal to place the base on "warm" status. The nine-member commission voted 7-0, with two members recusing themselves.

Before voting, commission members praised Eielson, noting its access to vast open areas for military exercises. They spoke of the base as a major line of defense in the north.

"This plays a very, very important role for the Air Force in the Pacific theater, particularly," said commissioner Lloyd Newton.

Instead of removing nearly all aircraft from Eielson, commissioners recommended keeping the 354th Fighter Wing's 18 F-16 fighter planes at the base and distributing 18 A-10 aircraft to installations outside Alaska. The 168th air refueling wing, a National Guard unit, would remain.

"I don't think it can be kept in warm status," said commission member James Hansen. "It would be rather foolish on our part to put it on warm status."

Military officials in Alaska said it was too early to say how many jobs would be saved if the recommendations are approved by President Bush, but the number is expected to be significant.

The original plan, which would have cost Eielson almost 3,000 jobs, caused the loudest outrage of several proposals affecting Alaska installations that were released by the Pentagon in May. State, federal and local officials pressed the commission, which visited Fairbanks in June, to take a closer look at the plan.

"This is great. The people of Fairbanks need to celebrate," said Maj. Gen. Craig Campbell, adjutant general of the Alaska National Guard and a member of the Save Eielson Task Force. "We were coming from behind. It took all of us working together to make the commission understand what the truth was."

The statewide effort paid off Thursday, said Gov. Frank Murkowski, who formed the 15-member task force after the plan was announced.

"I am pleased that the BRAC commissioners noted Eielson's strategic importance in the Pacific Rim, and I believe this bodes well for the future of this base," Murkowski said.

U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, had been a vocal critic of the Pentagon's plan for Eielson. He said the outcome was a huge improvement, although he would have preferred to see the A-10 fighter planes remain as well.

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