In a decision which could bring hundreds of millions of dollars in spending to Fairbanks, the U.S. Air Force has named Eielson Air Force Base one of its preferred bases to host the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.
The decision to base at least one and possibly two F-35 squadrons in Alaska by 2016, announced Thursday by Sen. Mark Begich’s office, marks a rapid turnaround for Eielson after attempts by the military to reduce the base’s staffing and importance since A-10 Warthog attack jets stopped flying from Eielson in 2007.
Only a coordinated fight by the state’s congressional delegation stopped a planned Air Force move of the 18th Aggressor Squadron and its F-16 fighters from Eielson to Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson in Anchorage. An Air Force report had said the military would save $500 million due to the move, which would cost Fairbanks an estimated 3,100 jobs in direct and indirect losses.
“Today’s decision shows how far we’ve come since the F-16 fight and demonstrates that Pentagon leadership truly recognizes Eielson’s strategic importance,” Begich said in the statement. “The F-35 is the next-generation aircraft for the Air Force and this move speaks volumes for Eielson’s future role in national defense. This is a huge win for Fairbanks.”
Fairbanks North Star Borough Luke Hopkins says Thursday that he's excited by the news. He and other officials look forward to assembling a draft environmental impact study for basing F-35s at Eielson -- the first step toward making the jets' arrival a reality -- and think they're up to the task of doing so.
In a matching statement, Sen. Lisa Murkowski lauded the strategic possibilities of having F-35s based near F-22 Raptors already stationed at JBER.
“Along with Fairbanks and the entire Alaska military community, I have to say that today’s decision is an incredibly powerful reminder that General Billy Mitchell knew what he was talking about when he said Alaska is the most strategic military position in the world," Murkowski said. " I remain confident that the F-35s will bed down at Eielson Air Force Base at the end of this process, so that we can watch over the Asia-Pacific region -- the hotbed of our military’s 21st century focus -- with 21st century weaponry."
Gov. Sean Parnell joined in praising the decision, noting his own testimony in favor of basing F-35s at Eielson last year.
“I am extremely pleased that the Air Force has wisely chosen Eielson Air Force Base as the preferred alternative for F-35 aircraft,” Parnell said. “Eielson was the clear choice, due to Alaska’s undeniable strategic geography, our vast training areas, and the state’s strong commitment to the military. While this is not the final decision, it is a very positive indication for Alaska, and we look forward to the next steps in the basing process. I hope to see F-35s at Eielson soon.”
The announcement marks a success for Begich, Murkowski and Rep. Don Young, who have been mounting a concerted effort to tout Alaska’s benefits for F-35 basing since last year. Their campaign to receive some of the Air Force’s planned 48 stealth jets in the Pacific region received a boost in February, when both Eielson and JBER made an Air Force cut of its favored bases for the area from eight to five.
Begich is scheduled to discuss the F-35 initiative with a Rotary Club group at 1 p.m. in Anchorage Thursday.
Channel 2's Nikki Carvajal contributed to this story.
This is a developing story. Please check KTUU.com and the Channel 2 newscasts for updates.