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F-16 move puts AF Chief of Staff nomination at risk

U.S. Sen. Mark Begich didn't budge from his threat to hold up Air Force general nominations after he read the 46-page report in which the service laid out the costs for moving an F-16 Aggressor Squadron from Eielson Air Force Base to Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson.

Is there really any surprise? Unless the Air Force changed its mind about the future of F-16s at Eielson, Begich would have found holes in the service's case to do it. He repeatedly ripped the Air Force's cost-benefit analysis on Capitol Hill to move the 18th Aggressor Squadron and ordered the service offer the report.

This food fight between Begich and the Air Force matters because he sits on the Senate Armed Services Committee and can hold up a nomination if he chooses. Thus far he's done just that holding up the promotion of Lt. Gen. Herbert “Hawk” Carlisle to four-stars and taking command of Pacific Air Forces. The senator says he will not release his hold on that nomination upon seeing the Air Force's report.

Begich could further gum up the Air Force's plans by holding up the nomination of its next chief of staff. The White House nominated Gen. Mark A. Welsh III to relieve Gen. Norton Schwartz pending the Senate's approval.

The decision to move the F-16s is part of a larger move by the Air Force to reduce its footprint. Moving the F-16s out of Eielson is seen as a move that could put the future of Eielson in question. Other than the 18th Aggressor Squadron, there's not much else stationed in the remote reaches of Alaska other than a Guard tanker wing and the service's Arctic Survival School.

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has already asked Congress for another round of BRAC although Congress has roundly denied the request. Schwartz has said his service is in dire need of another BRAC to scrap unnecessary infrastructure to match the reduction of equipment and manpower.

For it's part, the Air Force specified in the report that Eielson would remain a strategic part of the Total Force and had no plans to close down the base. Air Force officials said the service would save $217 million over the long term by moving the F-16s down to Elmendorf.

Begich isn't buying it. He said the millions of dollars the Air Force would have to spend in 2013 to make the move was unacceptable. He also again questioned the Air Force's assumptions on how much would be saved.

"I am disappointed, yet not surprised, to see the move of the F-16s from Eielson to JBER would actually cost money in the first year and estimated cost-savings appear to be less than half of what was projected initially. It is clear that the cost to implement this proposal has not been properly budgeted for," Begich said in a statement.

He also said the Air Force is not accounting for the cost to airmen who will struggle to sell their homes in Fairbanks, Alaska, if the entire squadron moves south.

"The Air Force wants to relocate the 18th Aggressor Squadron yet hasn’t completed the necessary homework to ensure our Airmen have somewhere to live and don’t suffer unnecessary financial burdens when trying to sell their homes in Fairbanks," Begich said.

To show the Air Force's commitment to Eielson, Air Force Secretary Michael Donley visited the base May 21-22. Schwartz met with Begich to address the senator's concerns.

"Alaska is ... quite possibly the most strategically positioned (state for America)," Donley told the airmen at Eielson. "It is a key toehold for the U.S. presence in the Pacific region. Its location provides a vital link to the Pacific theater with the ability to reach any (Pacific Air Forces) location in only one leg."

In the mean time, Begich wants the Air Force to do more research on the move.

"The bottom line is we have yet to see a comprehensive five-year analysis detailing the total budgetary ramifications of the relocation and long-term plan for Eielson. The Air Force needs to be straight with Congress. We cannot make major decisions impacting the budget, military operations, and our military families based on incomplete data and inconsistent information," he said in a statement.

In other words Air Force, keep looking until you find the answer that I'm looking for.

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