The U.S. Air Force telegraphed its decision about the next big thing for the military in Alaska when it announced plans a month ago to acquire a one-fifth scale model of the F-35 fighter jet for permanent display at Eielson Air Force Base, 26 miles from Fairbanks.
Still, it wasn't until the formal declaration Monday that the Air Force intends to send 54 F-35s to Eielson that Fairbanks businesses celebrated one of the biggest federal spending initiatives in the history of Interior Alaska. About 3,000 airmen, dependents and civilian personnel are expected to move to the area, starting in 2020, in connection with the maintenance and operation of a fleet of aircraft expected to cost U.S. taxpayers more than $5 billion.
"There was an announcement made this morning that the F-35 is coming to Eielson," Col. Mike Winkler, the Eielson commander, told the Fairbanks Chamber of Commerce meeting at the Westmark Hotel in downtown Fairbanks on Monday. Before he could finish the sentence, more than 300 people jumped to their feet and applauded for 30 seconds.
The Pentagon hopes the Air Force version of the F-35, which may move beyond the testing phase later this year, will become a mainstay of U.S. air power for the next half-century. Fairbanks hopes for a mainstay of the economy, a stunning turnaround given that parts of the Air Force hierarchy made two serious efforts in the last 11 years, under the Bush and Obama administrations, to shut the base down for good.
The business community's enthusiasm for the F-35 is more about local economics than U.S. military strategy, but the argument is always that geography justifies spending more here than somewhere else. Fairbanks' economy depends upon federal spending in a major way, though many of those who cheered the news Monday are more likely than not to believe that government spending is excessive.
In that sense, they are not all that far removed from the positions taken by Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan, who want reduced federal spending, as long as there is increased spending in Alaska. Murkowski and Sullivan attended the rally-like Chamber of Commerce meeting and praised community leaders, as did Gov. Bill Walker.
As to how and why this Air Force decision took place, a concerted and consistent political effort made a big difference.
Community leaders borrowed a bit of business jargon to describe a band of experts and formed what they called a "tiger team" that met once a week on Fridays for four years, working closely with state officials and the congressional delegation to plot strategy.
They said that Eielson needed a new mission to survive, and that the two strongest selling points were the size of the training area and Alaska's strategic location. Recent developments in Russia, China, North Korea and elsewhere in the Pacific no doubt influenced the thinking of Air Force leaders. The Air Force picked Eielson as the preferred location two years ago, making it the first U.S. base to host the jet outside the Lower 48.
In a prepared statement, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh said, "It's an exciting time for Pacific air power."
The Lockheed Martin F-35, now the most costly weapons project in the world, has been beset by many years of delay, design problems, cost overruns and criticism, all of which went unmentioned during the Fairbanks announcement, along with the names of the president and former Sen. Mark Begich, though Murkowski highlighted the vision of the late Sen. Ted Stevens and Billy Mitchell, the father of the Air Force who died in 1936.
"This is a huge turning point for air power in the Pacific," Murkowski said. "I think sometimes we forget where we are in the context of the whole. Let me say it more clearly: This is a big fat deal."
Sen. Sullivan said Fairbanks was a "community that would not take no for an answer" when the plans to shut down Eielson were put forward. Both Murkowski and Sullivan said that community support for the military is evident in Alaska.
Once the aircraft arrive, there will be 100 of the most modern fighters based in Alaska, the F-35 at Eielson and the F-22s at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson. Sullivan said he thinks modernizing the refueling tanker fleet should be the next goal.
"We're a critical hub of air combat power, not only in the Asia-Pacific, but globally," he said.
He said it was a "great day" for Fairbanks, North Pole, Alaska, the national security of the United States and for U.S. allies in the Pacific.
A half-billion in military construction work will be needed in advance of the arrival of the new jets, along with other projects to prepare for the thousands of new people. "If we get 3,500 additional folks down at Eielson, we're going to need bigger schools down there," Col. Winkler said.
When pilots from other nations train in Alaska, they are routinely shown map overlays demonstrating that the state's airspace "is bigger than their entire country," Winkler said.
"One of the reasons that we wanted to put the F-35s up here in Alaska is by far we have the best training air space anywhere in the world," Winkler said.
The range is fully instrumented with "target sets," which includes former tracking equipment used by the Soviet Union that can lock onto aircraft flying overhead. "If you think about our pilots getting the best training that they could, there's no better way than to try to operate against the equipment the enemy has," he said.
Dermot Cole lives in Fairbanks and writes a column three times a week for the Alaska Dispatch News. The views expressed here are his and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.