In his first meeting with an official state military advisory team, Gov. Bill Walker said he was optimistic the cuts in U.S. Army troop strength could eventually lead to an increase in military forces in Alaska if leaders work hard toward that goal.
"I look at situations in the military reduction here in Alaska and it's an opportunity," he told members of the Alaska Military Force Advocacy and Structure Team Thursday. "We're going to have to be aggressive to hold on to everything we have and look at growing our military presence here. We can't do it without your help."
Walker said it was time for the state to get on the offense, and not play defense, when it comes to retaining and maintaining troops.
The meeting, held at the Alaska National Guard armory on Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, included seven of the eight-member board that includes retired generals and current state leaders. The board was created by former Gov. Sean Parnell to look at developing strategies to make Alaska an attractive place for the military.
The group also took time to hear from other local leaders and the public, including Anchorage legislators and newly sworn-in Mayor Ethan Berkowitz.
The group meets with the governor yearly, and this year's meeting began just as the Pentagon was announcing more than 2,600 troops would be cut in Alaska. Walker said that announcement made up "a lot" of the conversations the group had Thursday.
"Very good from my standpoint," he said of the timing of the announcement.
The group will come up with recommendations for the governor in terms of moving forward on military advocacy. When asked what playing offense would look like, Walker said his top priority would be advocating for a naval port.
"Look at the buildup in Russia, and look what we're doing? We're withdrawing," he said in a post-meeting press conference. "That doesn't seem to be a good strategy from my standpoint."
Walker declined to say where he thinks that port should go.
He and others in the group also emphasized the need to maintain an Arctic presence for both geopolitical and training purposes.
Retired Gen. Joseph Ralston, chair of the group and former vice chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said there is a "constant education effort" going on in Washington, D.C.
"They have no concept of the opportunities in Alaska and the geostrategic importance," said Ralston, who also served for two years in the 1990s as head of the U.S. Air Force's Alaska command at Elmendorf Air Force Base in Anchorage.
Walker said he will be in Washington, D.C., July 22 to continue to fight against the drawdown and to "campaign" military leaders about the benefits of keeping troops in Alaska.