Military investments should help Alaska weather economic challenges

Alaska is facing tough economic times. Budgets are being squeezed, workers are being laid off and families are making due with less. But it’s important to understand that we’ve been here before, and we’ve come out stronger because of it. 

It’s also important to remember that just like in past recoveries, the federal government has a significant role to play in Alaska. Working together again, Alaska’s congressional delegation is united on this issue. We are making sure that Alaska gets its fair share of transportation and infrastructure funding, including nearly $3 billion in the recently passed transportation bill. We are pushing back on the federal government when it overreaches or locks up more of Alaska’s resources, energy that fuels the country. And we are protecting and enhancing one of the most productive fisheries in the world.

Alaska’s military capabilities play another incredibly important role for our country as global threats increase. Significant U.S. military investments are being made in Alaska that should help us weather our uncertain economic challenges.

As a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, I’ve been relentlessly promoting Alaska’s strategic location, and how our state constitutes three pillars of America’s military might. We are the cornerstone of America’s missile defense, we are the hub of air combat power and training for the Asia Pacific, and we are a vital expeditionary platform for some of America’s best trained troops who can rapidly deploy to threats anywhere in the world.

Let me go into these three areas in more detail.

First, our country faces growing threats from intercontinental ballistic missiles being developed by North Korea and Iran. Largely because of these threats, the Department of Defense will be making significant investments in building and expanding missile defense projects in Alaska, which will ensure that we remain the cornerstone of America’s missile defense.

More than $300 million will be invested over the next several years to build the Long Range Discrimination Radar at Alaska’s Clear Air Force Station. This is in addition to the more than $400 million for missile defense upgrades that are ongoing at Fort Greely, Clear Air Force Station, and Shemya Island. By the end of 2017, Fort Greely will have 40 ground-based interceptors capable of shooting down intercontinental ballistic missiles targeting any city in the U.S.

Second, the recent announcement that two squadrons of F-35As will be hosted in Fairbanks — combined with our existing F-16s, F-22s, E-3Cs, C-17s, C-130s, KC-135s, Army Grey Eagles, and Apache helicopters — makes Alaska’s Air Force and Army air power among the most agile, comprehensive and lethal in the world. These aircraft are flown and maintained by our active duty, reserve, and Alaska National Guard pilots and personnel—the best anywhere.

Finally, the third pillar of Alaska’s military might is our expeditionary troops. Alaska has two of the best trained active duty brigade combat teams in the U.S. Army: the 1st Stryker Brigade — the “Arctic Wolves” — at Fort Wainwright, and the 4th Brigade Combat Team 25th Infantry Division — known as the 4/25 — at JBER.

That’s in addition to our outstanding National Guard and reserve units, our pararescuemen and the thousands of Coast Guard members who perform heroic missions around our state and overseas on a regular basis and whose members will be increasing in Kodiak with more modern search and rescue aircraft, like the C-130Js. 

These positive military developments for Alaska have resulted from the strong support of local communities, and our congressional delegation’s advocacy in the form of hearings, meetings, legislation, amendments, appropriations, and even placing holds on the confirmation of defense department and military officials.

For example, after the Obama administration announced last year that it planned to disband the 5,000 airborne soldiers of the 4/25, my staff and I spent hundreds of hours making the case that this decision was strategically misguided. Finally, the Pentagon and the Army agreed, which was yet more good news for Alaska and our nation’s security. 

All of these military investments — the hundreds of millions of dollars for missile defense, the $450 million that will go to the Interior economy during the construction phase of the F-35s, as well as the tens of millions of dollars that will continue to sustain Southcentral as a result of the 4/25 staying intact — will create substantial job opportunities for Alaska contractors, their employees and union members.

We need to build on these positive developments and keep this momentum going. For example, we need make sure that the 4/25 remains in Alaska, and I’ll continue to fight to bring even more troops to our state. I’ve been working closely with the Director of the Missile Defense Agency to take full advantage of the existing infrastructure for potential missile defense testing in Kodiak. With our incoming F-35s and the existing F-22s at JBER, Alaska will soon be home to more than 100 fifth-generation fighter aircraft. I’ve spoken to the Secretary of Defense Ash Carter that it only makes strategic sense that those aircraft be supported by a new fleet of Air Force tankers like the new KC-46 Pegasus.

When I was in Fairbanks recently for the F-35 announcement, I talked, as I do often, about Alaska’s triad of U.S. military might. But it occurred to me that we really have four pillars of strength. The fourth is our welcoming and supportive communities that treat our military service members as if they are family. As long as Alaskans continue to support our troops, we’ll continue to be successful in making the case that Alaska’s military power and capability are second to none, benefiting our great state and country.

By:  Sen. Dan Sullivan
Source: Fairbanks Daily News-Miner