Elements of Eielson Air Force Base won't be going anywhere, at least for a year, thanks to a little sleight-of-hand by U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska. The Senate on Tuesday passed its version of the Defense Authorization Bill, and it includes an amendment by Murkowski that delays for one year any "structural movement" of Eielson assets currently under consideration by the U.S. Air Force.
The Air Force had been considering consolidating Eielson strategic assets from the Fairbanks base to Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson (JBER) just outside of Anchorage, Alaska's largest city. The shift would have involved a squadron of F-16s, but the move could have initiated a relocation process with little congressional input. A statement from the Murkowski press office explained it this way:
The amendment (Murkowski amendment #3135) essentially scratched the deadline for the newly-created "National Commission for the Structure of the Air Force" from March 31, 2013 and substituted March 31, 2014 instead.
Alaska's congressional delegation has been skeptical of the proposed move, which would have hit Fairbanks hard. But consolidating Eielson to Anchorage could have been hard on Southcentral Alaska, too, where housing is notoriously tight and where military assets are more prone to impact by volcanic and earthquake activity.
"When the Air Force released their proposal, I encouraged them to go back to the drawing board: Evaluate the mass relocation involved more thoroughly than just web surfing Craigslist; consider the already-crowded airspace surrounding JBER, and the risk of volcanic activity shutting down air traffic in Anchorage, and answer why the military – as it shifts its focus to the Asia-Pacific – is considering downgrading a facility so close to our main operating area," Murkowski said, according to the press release. "My amendment will let them do their homework, and let us continue to make our case as Alaskans."
The U.S. House of Representatives has already passed its version of a defense spending bill. Now the two chambers will convene in conference to hammer out a final version of the bill, behind closed doors, for the president to sign into law or veto.
"There's always the possibility the amendment will get dropped," said Matt Felling, spokesperson for Sen. Murkowski. "But we're optimistic that this will emerge from committee" and the Air Force will have another year to consider moving the F-16 fighter squadron, with the benefit of input from Alaskans.
Contact Eric Christopher Adams at eric(at)alaskadispatch.com