Alaska delegation inches forward on efforts to hold off Army troop cuts

WASHINGTON -- Alaska's congressional delegation is making slow headway in efforts to reverse planned Army troop cuts at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson after securing a hold on force reductions while the decision is under review.

Several months of prodding has resulted in new conversation about the Army's opaque methods for scoring bases, interest in Alaska's strategic position in the Arctic and relative proximity to the Pacific Rim, and several chances to show off Alaska's military assets to top leaders.

On Wednesday, Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter expressed a desire to move forward with an Arctic Operation Plan -- known as an "OPlan" -- despite President Barack Obama's recent veto of a key defense policy bill requiring it.

And on Friday, Carter will visit Alaska, touring facilities in Fairbanks and meeting with Army officials at Fort Wainwright, and potentially getting new insight into training grounds shared by that fort and JBER.

Soon, the targeted 4th Infantry Brigade Combat Team (Airborne), 25th Infantry Division, known as the "4-25," at JBER will have a chance to demonstrate its mettle, performing in training exercises in Louisiana's Fort Polk in February.

Meanwhile, Alaska's lawmakers have been able to gain new insight into the Army's process for deciding which troops to cut, which they hope will enable them to argue that Alaska's military resources should be considered in a different light than those in the Lower 48.

The arguments made by Alaska Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan and Rep. Don Young -- and their staffs -- in meetings with Army and Defense Department officials hark back to another recent and successful fight with another branch of the military: to keep the 354th Aggressor Squadron at Eielson Air Force Base in Interior Alaska.

In both cases, the delegation has pointed to Alaska's strategic location -- closer to theaters of current military importance than are other parts of the U.S. -- and the state's vast training grounds.

There's no way to tell yet if their efforts will win out, but garnering a second look at the decision is a substantial win as the Army barrels ahead with troop cuts elsewhere.

On Wednesday, during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing, Sullivan questioned Carter on the potential for an Arctic Operation Plan. Sullivan has hopes that a detailed strategic plan for the Arctic would bolster the Army's need to commit to forces in Alaska.

Sullivan secured a policy amendment in the $612 billion National Defense Authorization Act requiring an Arctic OPlan, but Obama vetoed the NDAA last week because of efforts to override military budget limits, halt some military-requested reform efforts, and restrict transfer of Guantanamo Bay detainees.

The House has scheduled an attempt to override the veto on Nov. 5, but it is unlikely the leadership will muster the necessary two-thirds majority to do so. When Congress and the White House will come to an agreement is unclear.

Russian aggression and actions are "changing the facts on the ground" in the Arctic, Sullivan said at Wednesday's hearing. He pointed to Russia's new Arctic combat teams, more than a dozen new airfields, with more to come, a 30 percent increase in special forces in the Arctic and a huge buildup of icebreakers, along with other indications that Russia is taking its presence in the Arctic more and more seriously.

Secretary Carter said that even though Obama vetoed the NDAA -- a decision he supported -- he would commit to a more substantial Arctic operations plan. "And I appreciate your leadership in this area," Carter told Sullivan. "The Arctic is an important region for the United States and actually for the entire world."

"We'll have a chance, actually, to discuss that in Alaska later this week," Carter told Sullivan.

Defense Department press officer Bill Urban declined to release more details on Carter's trip.

But John Pennell, media chief for the U.S. Army Alaska, said that Carter will tour Fort Wainwright on Friday and see the Army unit stationed there, in addition to holding a "town hall" style meeting with soldiers.

Staff in Sullivan and Murkowski's offices said they hope their argument that Alaska has a strategic position that needs more attention -- particularly in the Arctic -- is hitting home.

One key factor encouraging the delegation's efforts has been changes in the top ranks at the Defense Department and the Army since the decision to cut troops was made.

In August, the Army gained a new chief of staff with the retirement of Gen. Ray Odierno. He was replaced by Gen. Mark Milley, who has had several private meetings with Sullivan.

And Army Secretary John McHugh is set to retire in the coming weeks. Obama nominated Eric Fanning, acting undersecretary of the Army, to replace him, and Fanning is currently going through the Senate confirmation process.

The staff change provides new chances for input with high-level officials, according to staff members for Murkowski and Sullivan who are working on the issue.

Staffers for all three members of Alaska's congressional delegation said a briefing with military officials last Friday confirmed their suspicions about the way the Army scored JBER in its "military value analysis," which was used to decide where to make cuts.

The Army has been reluctant to provide details of how they scored the bases, citing national security issues.

But one document released to the lawmakers shows that JBER scored in the bottom third of bases with brigade combat teams in part because of its lack of land for maneuvers and the 350-mile distance to its training area.

In the "plus" column for JBER were its airborne capability for the Pacific and Arctic training abilities.

But congressional staffers say they were told in the last week that the greatest weight was given to areas where they feel JBER was shorted points -- on maneuver and training area.

Staff for Murkowski and Sullivan said they are trying to make the argument that Alaska military units should be considered differently from those Outside -- that Fort Wainwright, which scored in the top third, shouldn't get all the credit for the massive shared training space, and that 350 miles is less a significant distance in Alaska than it would be in the Lower 48.

The full 4-25 will get a chance to show its value Feb. 16 at Fort Polk in a Joint Readiness Training Center exercise that the delegation hopes will give them a chance to show Army officials what would be lost if the brigade was reduced to a fraction of its current size, according to staff in Sullivan and Murkowski's office.

"The Joint Readiness Training Center trains Army brigade combat teams by conducting force-on-force and live-fire training in a joint scenario. Training occurs under tough, realistic, combat-like conditions across a wide range of likely tactical operations," Pennell said.

But while the congressional delegation is looking at the effort in terms of proving the worth of the full unit, Pennell noted that an "important part" of the Louisiana trip "will include proofing the current concept for the unit's scheduled transformation to a smaller Airborne Task Force. This is important to verify planners have successfully designed the new unit to have the necessary equipment and personnel variations to carry out whatever mission the Army assigns to it."

Erica Martinson

Erica Martinson is Alaska Dispatch News' Washington, DC reporter, and she covers the legislation, regulation and litigation that impact the Last Frontier.  Erica came to ADN after years as a reporter covering energy at POLITICO. Before that, she covered environmental policy at a DC trade publication and worked at several New York dailies.