In front of hundreds of exuberant Interior community members, U.S. Air Force Col. Mike Winkler delivered the news Monday that many Alaskans have been waiting on for years: Two F-35 Joint Strike Fighter squadrons are headed to Eielson Air Force Base. It’s the end of a long road for those who have fought for the jets to be placed locally and one that will have a major economic impact to local communities. Perhaps most importantly, it signals a recognition at the highest level of the U.S. military that Alaska is in a position to help America retain a leadership posture in world affairs in coming years and decades. A new chapter for Eielson has begun.
Speakers at the Fairbanks Chamber of Commerce luncheon at which the jets’ placement was officially announced rightly framed the news as the culmination of a decade-long battle that started in 2005 with Eielson’s placement on the base realignment and closure list, which would have shuttered the base except for potential use as a training site a few weeks per year.
The base’s closure would have crippled the local economy and meant big changes for an area with as strong a military presence as has historically been the case in the Interior. Community members and leaders fought back, keeping pressure on military brass in Washington, D.C., to explain their reasoning and packing the Carlson Center for a Base Closure and Realignment Commission hearing. Against the odds, that effort succeeded, and Eielson stayed open, despite the loss in 2007 of the base’s A-10 squadron. It took until 2013 for closure plans for the base to be formally shelved.
In 2009, when the prospect of F-35s in Alaska was dim, even the state’s Congressional delegation appeared glum in their expectations for landing the jets. When Eielson scored in the middle third of more than 200 bases nationwide in consideration for a squadron of the fighters, Alaska’s representatives in Washington, D.C., expressed their mood as “disappointed,” and vowed to keep fighting to get Pentagon brass to understand the state’s strategic importance.
The community kept fighting, too, showing up in droves to support both the placement of F-35s at Eielson and the retention of the base’s F-16 Aggressor squadron. Those efforts — by the community and Alaska’s leaders — eventually paid off, with Eielson rising to the top of Pacific bases slated to receive the jets. What was more, the defense of the Aggressor squadron proved successful as well, leaving Eielson as the only base to receive F-35s and keep its existing F-16 unit.
From a military standpoint, the advantages of Eielson have been borne out by geopolitics and a slowly shifting strategic focus. When President Barack Obama announced a shift in U.S. military posture to a Pacific-facing strategy, it confirmed the views of Alaskans that the state is uniquely positioned to deal with current and emerging threats to global stability, both across the Pacific Ocean and over the pole.
The basing of the F-35s — 54 in all, two squadrons of 24 plus six relief planes — will have a huge positive economic impact for the Interior. Direct spending on construction during the next five years at the base is estimated at $500 million. Thousands of families will come along with the jets, an estimated total of more than 3,000 people in all. Likewise, thousands of direct and indirect jobs will come along as a result. It’s a big piece of economic good news at a time when local communities and the state sorely needed one.
Still, the Interior’s history should inform residents that there is no such thing as unalloyed good news, and there is always another hill to climb. The selection of Eielson as a home for the F-35 squadrons, while a tremendous boon, relies on funding bills Congress has yet to pass, and there are still well-publicized issues with the jets that need to be worked out before the fighters see combat. Those issues could affect at least the timetable if not the end placement of the squadrons. Alaskans should advocate for the resolution of capability issues, too, as our nation’s fighting men and women deserve a fully functional fifth-generation fighter to help them complete their mission. Finally, residents should keep a weather eye out that in our exuberance, we don’t simply exchange one backbone economic sector to which our state’s welfare is handcuffed for another.
The announcement of Eielson as the destination for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, however, is great news for the Interior community and state alike. In addition to its economic and community impacts, the placement signifies a recognition of a new era for Alaska — a turning point, as Sen. Lisa Murkowski said Monday, for air power in the Pacific. The strategic importance of Alaska has been recognized, and Eielson looks to be its northern crown jewel.
— Fairbanks Daily News-Miner,