Military continues to grow its mission

Posted: Monday, February 14, 2011

The military continues to add infrastructure and new units to bases in Alaska, and so far units in the state have escaped the federal budget knife.

Alaska's major selling points in sustaining the military here are huge air and land training spaces available, which Lower 48 bases can no longer provide, Lt. Gen. Dana Atkins said. A strategic location, in relation to potential trouble spots in East Asia, is also important.

"What we have here in vastly superior in advantages for training compared with what is available elsewhere. We do have to market our advantages" to the Defense Department, Atkins said.

Atkins was in Juneau Feb. 8, briefing the Legislature's Joint Armed Services Committee. He heads the Alaskan Command, and is responsible for U.S. Air Force and Army units in Alaska.

One concern, Atkins warned, is President Barack Obama's goal of cutting $100 billion from defense spending over five years, part of the president's effort to shrink a ballooning federal deficit.

The Air Force share of that $100 billion reduction could be about $30 billion, Atkins said. Alaska could yet feel the impacts of reductions, he said.

Aside from that, however, the military continues to have a strong and growing presence in the state. Last October Elmendorf Air Force Base and Fort Richardson were administratively joined, which won't affect actual operations.

Elmendorf-Richardson is now one of 12 such joint Air Force-Army facilities in the U.S. Over time there will be savings with shared infrastructure and services, but for now the merger has actually created 180 new civilian support jobs, Atkins said.

Those can't be filled until Congress passes a new defense budget, however. Federal agencies are still operating under a continuing resolution, which means agencies stay in business at the prior year spending levels.

That means Atkins must operate the two bases with the same amount of money, and the new positions can't be filled. Eventually a new budget will be authorized, and the hiring will be done.

Meanwhile new units continue to be added to the Alaska bases. The latest addition is the 537th Airlift Squadron with its air and maintenance crews.

New infrastructure is being built and planned, too. A new privatized on-base housing program for Army families on the Richardson side of the joint base is to be signed in late February. It involves 1,242 new housing units and follows a similar program for private housing recently done at Elmendorf.

Construction continues at the missile interceptor launch facility at Fort Greely, in Delta Junction. There are now 26 operational interceptor missiles in their silos at Fort Greely - another four interceptors are at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California - but construction is under way this year on an additional eight silos at Fort Greely, Atkins said.

These won't be filled with interceptors for now, but are being built so they can be ready in case the Missile Defense Agency, which is in charge of the program, decides to expand missile defense, Atkins said. Construction also is nearly complete on a new power plant to support the launch facility. It is to be finished and ready for operation in June, the general said. The new plant will be fueled with diesel.

A $280 million upgrade of ballistic missile warning radar facilities at Clear Air Force Station south of Nenana will begin in 2013 and will be two years in construction.

About $200 million of this is for installation of advanced new radar systems and most of the remainder is intended for an upgrade of the power plant at Clear, which uses coal as a fuel.

A $35 million upgrade of the coal-fired power plant at Eielson Air Force Base east of Fairbanks is also under way this year, and will install the latest in coal combustion systems. Atkins said managers of the Eielson plant told him that coal is still the most cost-effective way of producing electric power in the Interior.

Atkins touched on the planned Tanana River bridge project east of Fairbanks, which is being built by the Alaska Railroad Corp. as part of a long-range plan for an extension of the railroad but which, in the short term, will give the Army year-round access to training areas south of the Tanana River.

The project encountered a glitch when the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency intervened in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineer's consideration of a Section 404 permit for the bridge. Atkins said he thinks the EPA's concerns can be accommodated.

"There is a high likelihood that we will get this permit, but the process takes time," Atkins told the legislators.

There is, however, a funding gap for the project. Its cost is now estimated to be between $186 million and $207 million, and $144.2 million are the funds now in hand. Atkins said there are discussions under way of downsizing the project to fit the available funding.

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