Anyone wondering where Alaska’s senior U.S. senator stands on where the Air Force should base two Pacific Rim squadrons of the new F-35 fighters need not wonder any longer.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski said Eielson Air Force Base is the best home for them. Her comment came Wednesday at a Senate Appropriations Committee subcommittee hearing and is notable because Air Force officials in February placed two Alaska bases —Eielson and Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson in Anchorage — on the short list of five possible sites for hosting the 48 aircraft.
“You know that I will continue to maintain that when we are talking about the proximity to the Pacific theater and the polar consideration, that Alaska, and particularly Eielson, is the ideal location for the F-35s,” she said to Air Force Gen. Mark Welsh III, who was among several Air Force military and civilian officials appearing before the subcommittee regarding the president’s proposed Defense Department budget.
Sen. Murkowski’s comment is important because it helps send the message that Alaska’s state leaders and its local leaders outside of Fairbanks should be unified behind Eielson. And that’s essential because it is natural for Anchorage-area government and business leaders to want the F-35s, along with their large economic impact, to be located in their part of the state.
Sen. Murkowski, Sen. Mark Begich and Rep. Don Young all were urging the Air Force in October to base the F-35s at Eielson, but that was before the surprise inclusion of Elmendorf-Richardson on the Air Force list in February.
Having both bases on the list can put statewide elected officials in a tough spot. Supporting one base over another on a decision as large as the F-35 basing will surely make some people unhappy.
Sen. Murkowski has made it clear, however, that she believes in Eielson and that she is willing to say so, even with Elmendorf-Richardson on the list of candidate bases.
It’s the smart choice, and not just for an Interior-centric reason. It is better for Alaska to have two Air Force bases with secure futures than just one. Eielson’s future has been in doubt at various times over the years, though the future seems a bit brighter with last year’s Air Force decision to keep the F-16 fighter squadron at Eielson rather than move it to Elmendorf-Richardson.
It is also best for the state if economic activity is spread out. The Fairbanks region is an economic hub for a large region of Alaska, so ensuring its vibrancy is important.
What would the basing of 48 F-35s at Eielson mean to our economy? The Fairbanks Economic Development Corp. estimates it would directly create 3,042 Department of Defense jobs at Eielson. That would more than double the base’s present work force of 2,950. Those jobs would bring $379 million in payroll to the Fairbanks area, beyond the current payroll of $367 million.
The list of five candidate bases will be winnowed to two or three this month or next, with a final decision expected this summer.
Military leaders will make their decision on a host of factors, not just on military points. Making sure they have an understanding of Eielson’s benefits is a key job of our state and local leaders. Another job, as demonstrated by Sen. Murkowski on Wednesday, is precluding any in-state squabbling that could undermine Eielson’s opportunity — and its long-term future.
— Fairbanks Daily News-Miner,