ANCHORAGE - The Army is giving Fairbanks another economic shot in the arm.
Army officials said Monday that they expect Fort Wainwright in Fairbanks to gain about 880 soldiers and 44 helicopters in the next four years.
The troops will join troops already at Fort Wainwright to form a 1,500-person Aviation Task Force, said Army Alaska strategic planner Michael McLendon.
Exact details are expected later this month.
The Army Pacific headquarters in Hawaii gave the go-ahead Monday to assemble the new unit's headquarters.
"We're basically being told to set up and get ready," McLendon said.
The headquarters unit will oversee the buildup of the rest of the task force, McLendon said. Col. John C. Buss, who arrived at Fort Wainwright in August, will be its commander.
"He's a very experienced officer," McLendon said. "A very experienced aviator who has graduated from the Army War College."
Aviation units typically are made up of older soldiers with a higher density of seasoned enlisted troops and officers. McLendon said he expects those demographics in Fairbanks.
That's good news for the Fairbanks economy, said state labor economist Neal Fried.
"The older the soldiers are, what it generally also means is you'll have more dependents and your wage scale will also be higher, so it has a bigger impact," he said.
Army officials estimate that 65 percent of the new troops will be married and that 400 dependents will move to Fairbanks with them.
"It's a positive thing for Fairbanks," said Brigitta Windisch-Cole, another state labor economist. "Families need more services from the community."
McLendon said the push to place the unit in Alaska came after a large group of Fort Richardson paratroopers returned in August 2004 from a 10-month tour in Afghanistan.
During a routine review of that deployment from the Anchorage base, McLendon said, Army officials learned the paratroopers had lacked training with the support helicopters they dealt with in Afghanistan. They had to train in the field.
"Of course, learning that in combat is not the time you want to do it," McLendon said.
Army officials determined that placing an aviation task force in Alaska would give ground troops here more exposure to the kinds of helicopters used in war zones, particularly attack helicopters that Army posts in Alaska did not have.
The recent stationing of two large combat units in Alaska, the Stryker Brigade at Wainwright and the Airborne Brigade at Richardson, made getting an aviation unit in Alaska more pressing, McLendon said. The more than 7,000 soldiers and paratroopers in the two brigades could benefit from training with the helicopters and their crews.
John M. Brown III, commander of Army Alaska in 2004, wanted the aviation task force in Alaska, McLendon said. When he left to become the three-star general in charge of the Army Pacific, which oversees Army Alaska, he urged the Department of the Army to support the initiative, McLendon said.
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