Local leaders are welcoming news that the Air Force plans to keep 21 F-16 jets and more than 1,500 military and civilian jobs at Eielson Air Force Base. The Air Force had considered moving them to accommodate the proposed stationing of 2 F-35 squadrons at the base.
Fairbanks North Star Borough Mayor Luke Hopkins expressed relief at the news.
“It’s a huge message for us, and I’m very pleased for our community,” Hopkins said.
North Pole Mayor Bryce Ward says the Air Force made the right decision, based on the importance of the base and its local support.
“I think it’s a smart move,” Ward said. “I think it’s the right move for the Air Force. I think they definitely recognize the commitment of this community to our military members. And that they definitely recognize and understand the strategic importance of Eielson Air Force Base.”
Eielson accounts for about 10 percent of the Fairbanks area’s payroll, about $308 million annually, most of which is due to the 354th Fighter Wing, the base’s biggest unit.
Ward says the decision provides a welcome respite from the bad economic news that’s rocked North Pole over the past couple of years, including Flint Hills decision to shut down its refinery there last year.
“I think what this does for the economy here in North Pole is it really gives us some stability. We’ve had a lot of turmoil in the last few years,” Ward said. He added the decision will provide “stability in the housing market, in the investment potential for North Pole. So it’s a good thing all around.”
Ward says the decision gives him hope that the Air Force may also decide to base two squadrons of F-35 fighters at Eielson.
Hopkins says the F-16 decision at the very least streamlines the process of compiling an environmental-impact statement, or EIS, for the F-35 move.
“I would think it makes the EIS an easier document to put together,” he said. “If the F-16s are relocated, there’s a lot more efforts, a lot more analysis let me say, to be done on what is to happen to those existing facilities. So therefore I think it would’ve taken longer.”
The Air Force proposes to bring 48 of the next-generation warplanes along with 2,000 military and civilian personnel to Eielson, beginning in 2019. If Eielson keeps what it has, and gains two additional fighter squadrons, Senator Lisa Murkowski says the base will need additional infrastructure.
“I think a very critical cost assessment was made, and a decision to invest in Eielson for the long-term was made,” Murkowski said.
Meanwhile, a U.S. House panel yesterday reviewed F-35 production problems, which have included engine failures, software errors, cracked bulkheads, a fire, and as Ohio Republican Congressman Mike Turner pointed out, a skyrocketing price tag.
“Current acquisition costs are now approaching $400 billion, which according to the GAO makes this DoD’s most costly and ambitious acquisition program,” Turner said.
Lawmakers and Pentagon officials say they have to make the program work to produce the next generation of stealth fighters. Congressman Don Young says the cost overruns concern him, but they reflect massive leaps in technology.
“This plane is going to be the best. It’ll do anything anybody ever wanted it to do. But it is so far-reaching in modern technology there’s going to be some glitches, but I’m not discouraged about that at all,” Young said.
Fairbanks is also waiting to hear if the Army plans to keep Gray Eagle drones at Fort Wainwright. The unmanned vehicles are about the size of a Cessna and similar to the Air Force Predator drones.
Editor's Note: APRN's Liz Ruskin contributed to this report.