FAIRBANKS -- Ending speculation that a move might be in the offing, the U.S. Air Force said Tuesday it will keep a squadron of F-16 fighters at Alaska's Eielson Air Force Base in Fairbanks.
The Alaska congressional delegation praised the decision, with Rep. Don Young calling it "an example of logic prevailing, which is becoming exceptionally rare in the federal government." Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan said the actions of Russia, North Korea and other nations and the pending move of the F-35 squadrons to Eielson all tend to reinforce the need for this decision about the 18th Aggressor Squadron.
Gov. Bill Walker said having the F-16s available for training operations helps with the nation's readiness. He also said he welcomes the start of the environmental review for the proposed basing of two F-35 squadrons at Eielson, a move that has a bearing on the F-16s.
Air Force Secretary Deborah James cited the strategic location and suitability of the mission as key reasons for keeping the F-16s where they are, Fairbanks Mayor Luke Hopkins said in a written statement. Last fall the Air Force said it would review the possibility of moving the 18 fighters to Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson in Anchorage or to Nevada.
"This announcement from Secretary James is huge. With the F-16s remaining at EAFB, the base will continue to support the mission to be 'ready to fight tonight.' I am proud to lead a borough so committed to our status as a military community. For over a decade, our residents have repeatedly made a strong case for maintaining the 354th Aggressor Squadron at Eielson. Today's announcement is a strong endorsement of the hard work and advocacy of thousands of Interior Alaskans who stood up and supported our fighting men and women," Hopkins said.
The Air Force has also designated Eielson as the future home of two squadrons of F-35 jets. That aircraft remains under development by the Pentagon.
In a phone interview Tuesday, Hopkins said that over the last decade Eielson has gone from the brink of closure to a situation in which it stands to have multiple missions, which is good for the community and the state. As recently as 2013, the Air Force considered moving the F-16s to JBER, which prompted a major lobbying campaign to keep them in the Interior.
"The F-16s were a vestige and they are not a vestige anymore," Hopkins said. The F-16 Aggressor Squadron flies during the Red Flag-Alaska exercises and it also works with the F-22 fighters from JBER.
Hopkins said Fairbanks business and community leaders have invested a lot of time in recent years trying to make sure that the numbers presented to the Air Force are accurate and responsible. He said that is a key reason why efforts to put the base in cold storage have been rejected.
Murkowski said while the plan to base two squadrons of F-35s at Eielson "gave the Pentagon a reason to re-evaluate the distribution of their assets," she said, "we once again feel vindicated that our state, our welcoming military community, our location, and our natural environmental assets make Alaska second to none."
"Given Russia's recent resurgence and Putin's aggressive moves into the Arctic, keeping the 18th Aggressors at Eielson is more important than ever," Sullivan said in a statement.
"Flying out of Eielson, planes can respond more quickly to hot spots in Asia, the Middle East or Europe. Alaskans are ready, and excited, to accept the F-35 mission. Both of these announcements are good news for the Interior," Walker said in his statement.
In a phone interview, Murkowski said the Air Force secretary found it made sense both in terms of costs and efficiency to leave the fighter jets at Eielson.
She said the experience of the past decade, which included plans to shut down the base at one point, is a reminder that long-range decisions about important infrastructure should not be based on immediate budget demands.
As recently as 2012, the Air Force had considered spending millions to tear down numerous usable buildings on the base to reduce the cost of maintenance and operations.