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Alaska congressmen peeved by plan to relocate Eielson F-16 jets

Alex DeMarban

Fairbanks residents won't like to hear this, but the U.S. Air Force estimates it will save more than $200 million over five years by moving an F-16 fighter squadron from Fairbanks to Anchorage.

Initial savings would accrue by moving 542 positions with the 18th Aggressor Squadron from Eielson Air Force Base to Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson (JBER). As part of the move, 81 positions would be reduced. Additional savings would come in other areas, such as eliminating excess facility capacity, the report says.

By fiscal year 2015, much more money will be saved by "eliminating 749 military and 179 civilian manpower authorizations that the analysis determined would no longer be needed at Eielson once the remaining infrastructure and support functions are adjusted after the Aggressor Squadron's relocation," according to a press release on the U.S. Air Force Web site.

The Aggressor Squadron simulates enemy fighters during training exercises. The move is planned for next year.

The Air Force web site said: "Eielson hosts the only wing in the active-duty Air Force that has only a single operational squadron. In addition to expected cost savings, this move would lead to more efficient operations by locating the F-16 Aggressor aircraft with their primary customers, the F-22 Raptors at Elmendorf. The F-16 Aggressors will retain the capability to operate from Eielson during exercises and as otherwise needed."

Sen. Mark Begich slammed the report, saying in a press release it failed to provide the full picture.

"The bottom line is we have yet to see a comprehensive five-year analysis detailing the total budgetary ramifications of the relocation and long-term plan for Eielson," Begich said. "The Air Force needs to be straight with Congress. We cannot make major decisions impacting the budget, military operations, and our military families based on incomplete data and inconsistent information.”

Similarly, Rep. Don Young said he fears the numbers don't add up.

"Before finalizing this move,” Young said in a press release, “the Air Force must prove to me and to all Alaskans that this move will not require additional and expensive construction, will not adversely affect U.S. national security or readiness, and will not leave Alaskan airmen literally out in the cold as they try to find housing in a saturated Anchorage housing market."

Earlier this week, Air Force Secretary Michael Donley visited Eielson and JBER to talk about the proposed move. He emphasized that the "move does not close Eielson."

Sen. Lisa Murkowski also said she was disappointed in the report -- and saw no way the move could happen on schedule. 

"In February, the Air Force didn't think any environmental review was needed," she said in a press release. "Today, they acknowledge a review is needed, but it won't be completed before December 2012  . . . and the Air Force acknowledges the entire plan is contingent on the environmental review. That, too, will cost more money. The Air Force is trying to get this plan in the air but it is nowhere near ready for takeoff.

"I had hoped that today would be a day for questions answered, but today's presentation left many unanswered while raising even more. The Air Force has more work to do."

Murkowski said she's also concerned about how the proposed move will affect the National Guard's 168th Air Refueling Wing at Eielson. She said the wing may move from a 24-hour-a-day operation to 12 hours a day, five days a week.

"Not necessarily bankers' hours, but certainly not the kind of hours that are required for this pretty incredible, intensive refueling wing out there at Eielson," Murkowski said Wednesday at a Senate Appropriations defense subcommittee hearing.

Lt. Gen. Harry "Bud" Wyatt III, director of the Air National Guard, said the decision to change the wing's alert rests with Pacific Air Forces and the North American Aerospace Defense Command, according to the Air Force Times. But Wyatt has "been assured that there will remain sufficient funds and sufficient services to keep the 168th playing the vital role it does."

Contact Alex DeMarban at alex(at)alaskadispatch.com