WASHINGTON -- The reduction of Army forces in Alaska is on hold in light of potential new consideration of the need for U.S. forces in the Arctic, military sources confirmed Wednesday.
The halt in plans to eliminate nearly 3,000 soldiers from Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson in Anchorage comes after a dogged effort from Sen. Dan Sullivan to urge the military to reexamine Alaska's strategic location in terms of the Arctic and Pacific Rim.
Sullivan's effort got a boost Wednesday when the Senate passed a $612 billion defense authorization bill, which sets spending levels and policy at the Pentagon, including a rider aimed at forcing the military to create an operation plan, or "OPLAN," a lengthy planning document aimed at determining strategic, staff and infrastructure needs for the Arctic.
Sullivan said he has been assured by the Army's Chief of Staff General Mark Milley the military will first assess the Arctic need before moving forward with any cuts to JBER.
Sullivan called the OPLAN a "very significant undertaking" that would likely take months. "Right now we have an Arctic Strategy -- you may have seen it. It's about 13 pages and six of the pages are pictures," he said.
The bill still faces a veto threat from President Barack Obama, but the U.S. Army confirmed Wednesday that the ebb and flow of soldiers from JBER's 4th Brigade Combat Team (Airborne), 25th Infantry Division -- the unit to be dismantled and reformed at a quarter of its current size -- has continued since cuts were announced in early July. The president has 10 days, not including Sunday, to either sign or veto the bill.
Sullivan has argued during his term that pushing the military to craft a comprehensive Arctic operational plan would put troop cuts on hold and could ultimately bolster the presence of the military in Alaska.
In July the Army announced plans to cut 2,600 troops at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson and another 75 at Fort Wainwright in Fairbanks as part of its efforts to shed 40,000 soldiers nationwide.
Sullivan cautioned Wednesday: "This is an important development, but by no means a done deal in terms of keeping those troops there. We're going to keep fighting it."
The Army could still decide soldiers at JBER need to be among the 40,000 positions to be eliminated over the next several years.
But an operation plan for the Arctic certainly could "impact force structure requirements," said Lt. Col. Joe Buccino, an Army spokesman. "Therefore, the Arctic OPLAN could impact Army force structure requirements, to include the planned conversion of 4th Brigade, 25th Infantry Division," Buccino said.
Other issues could impact cuts to Alaska's forces too: The Army cannot cut short three-year deployments overseas for any reason. And duty in Alaska is categorized similarly to overseas and hardship deployment, partly because of the costs associated with sending them there, Buccino said.
On Wednesday the Senate passed the National Defense Authorization Act by a vote of 70-27, including a provision penned by Sullivan that requires a detailed operational plan for U.S. military interests in the Arctic region.
The provision -- agreed to in conference with the House -- requires assessment of responsibilities for protecting the Arctic, needed military capabilities and infrastructure and an assessment of Russian military operations, which have been growing in the Arctic region.
The 70 votes in favor of the bill are more than enough to override a presidential veto, though the ability to do so in the House remains in question.
On Monday, White House spokesman Josh Earnest said the bill "includes an irresponsible way for funding our core national defense priorities."
In addition to disagreements over funding, other provisions in the bill would make it difficult to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay.
Earnest said the president's position hasn't changed since he issued a veto threat in June. "We continue to feel strongly about it," he said.
Rep. Don Young, who supported the House passage of the bill, pointed out Wednesday the president has previously threatened to veto defense authorization bills and eventually signed them anyway.
Young was responsible for his own amendment to the bill -- expressing a "sense of Congress" aimed at stationing F-35 jets at Eielson Air Force Base.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski, who voted for the defense bill, urged the president to reconsider his veto threat.
If Obama signs the bill, "this will be the 54th consecutive year that Congress and the administration have come together on a defense bill," Murkowski said.
Unrelated to the hold at JBER, the Army is also holding off on civilian cuts. When the specific plans for cutting 40,000 troops nationwide were announced in July, the Army said they would release more information about the fate of related civilian jobs in 90 days -- a clock that runs out this week. But that's not happening.
At the time, the Army was "unable to anticipate the unpredictability in the level of funding," Buccino said, pointing to Congress's just-passed Continuing Resolution in lieu of a package of appropriations bills to fund the government.
"The analysis is ongoing," Buccino said. The Army's goal is to get to cut enough civilian jobs through voluntary reductions, "but we don't really know how many," Buccino said.