The Army’s second-highest-ranking civilian leader visited Fort Wainwright Thursday to talk about Alaska and the strategic role it plays in the nation’s defense – and how that might help protect the state’s military installations from cutbacks during upcoming budget battles in Washington, D.C.
Army Undersecretary Joseph Westphal was on his way back from a tour of U.S. military facilities in Asia when he stopped by Fort Wainwright after a daylong visit to Army training facilities around the Interior and the missile defense base at Fort Greely.
Westphal says he was impressed with what he saw.
“When for example I toured the Black Rapids training area, and saw all the large training areas – we have nothing like that, nothing as significant as that, in other parts of the Pacific region,” Westphal said.
Westphal says the state’s vast training ranges and the rapid-response Stryker Brigades at Wainwright and Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson make Alaska an essential part of the new U.S. military policy that places much greater emphasis on Asia and the Pacific Rim.
He says Alaska’s strategic geographical location, puts the state literally in the middle of the Asia-centric policy.
“We think the elements that are here are important to our strategy, important to our force,” he said.
Westphal says Alaska’s location will prove even more important in the years ahead, because of increased shipping along the already-busy route along the Gulf of Alaska and the likelihood of additional routes if as many predict the waters to the north open up as polar ice recedes.
“It’s not just about wars,” he said. “It’s also about trade and commerce.”
Westphal says all those factors should help protect Alaska’s military installations from heavy budget cuts that Congress may dictate as lawmakers wrestle with reducing the nation’s budget deficit.
He says the state’s Army posts are safe – at least for now – from federal base-closure actions.
“There’s no planning going on to eliminate any of our installations in the state of Alaska.”
Westphal says he cannot, however, rule out cuts that may result if Congress fails to pass legislation to reduce the federal budget deficit in March. He says the so-called “sequestration” of some $500 billion in defense funding over the next 10 years that’s called for in the 2011 Budget Control Act would force the Pentagon to cut its budget far more deeply than the $487 billion already scheduled to be cut over the next 10 years.