In the foreground, carpenters with Alaska Professional Construction bend and tie reinforcement bar as they form, reinforce and place concrete for footers and stem walls for the Mission Control Facility at Clear Air Force Station. Meanwhile, drill rig operators with Malcolm Drilling install drilled shafts for the LRDR Equipment Shelter foundation. Photo by U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Alaska District
The clock is ticking down toward the date when Alaska will become home to two squadrons of F-35A Lightning II stealth fighter jets, and Alaska contractors are busily helping to prepare for their arrival at Eielson Air Force Base, scheduled to happen in 2020.
Meanwhile, in another major military project, contractors are building a mission control facility, equipment shelter foundation, power plant and maintenance facility for a space-age defense weapon, the Long-Range Discrimination Radar, or LRDR program at Clear Air Force Station. The radar is scheduled to be operational by 2020.
Together, the two programs account for nearly $200 million in construction spending this fiscal year. Nearby in Fort Greely, work is being done to update the Missile Defense Agency’s Ground-Based Midcourse Defense System, where 40 of the United States’ 44 Ground-Based Interceptor missiles, or GBIs, are housed in three missile fields. The remaining three GBIs are housed at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. A fourth missile field is being added, with room for 20 additional GBIs to be housed there.
At a time when state capital spending remains relatively flat, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, or USACE, is seeing a lot of interest in, and competition for, these federal defense projects.
“Contractors are definitely hungry,” said USACE Alaska District chief of contracting Aldone Graham. “My projects have never had an issue with getting responses.”
With so many projects under way and preparing to be bid, there have been a number of success stories to share. The USACE Alaska District used a unique preselection process for the two larger projects related to Fort Greely’s Missile Field 4 project, which required potential bidders to undergo a vetting process. Of the four contractors who qualified to bid on the projects, three were from Alaska: Watterson, Davis Constructors and Neeser Construction. Those three are competing against national construction firm Bechtel for the two Greely projects.
Graham said he is concerned about market saturation, with the potential for pricing increases as a result of too many projects and too few workers.
“We’re seeing pricing increasing,” he said. “We’re worried that if oil and gas is to pick back up, we’re not going to have enough of a contractor base to execute the mission. This project base is just a snapshot — we’re getting calls daily from the Congressional delegation that are related to efforts going on in (Washington) D.C. that will bring projects to Alaska.”
Graham worries that contractors spread thin by too many commitments will be sending their secondstring and third-string teams to complete some of the work. Or that they might bring in Outside workers.
“It’s not my intention to hire an Alaska firm to outsource,” he said.
To that end, Graham said USACE is working to make federal contracting processes mirror private-sector steps so businesses don’t have to adjust to a whole new way of working. USACE can use as many experienced contractors as possible — even those relatively new to federal contracting but experienced in their field — in the next few years, he said. The defense spending projects, while accounting for a larger portion of the USACE project oversight pie monetarily, is just a small portion of the overall number of contracts the Alaska district oversees on a yearly basis.
“We have close to 1,900 contract actions this year,” Graham said. “Out of those, only about 100 are military projects.”
The rest are repairs and upgrades to small boat harbors, renovation work, a major upgrade to the Moose Creek dam on the Chena River Lakes Flood Control project, and numerous Formerly Used Defense Sites, or FUDS, cleanup sites and Native American Lands and Environmental Mitigation Program projects dotted across the state.
“The Corps of Engineers is a full-service organization that does a lot of different and interesting stuff to support both Alaska and the nation as a whole,” Graham said. “There is a diversity of project portfolio that is unlike anything I’ve ever seen in my 10 years here.” Alaska is strategically located to respond from threats around the world, Graham pointed out. And while the projects USACE Alaska District are overseeing are largely laying the groundwork for the larger project, such as in the case of the LRDR project, in which Lockheed Martin will be responsible for bringing the radar system to Alaska and building it, Graham said Alaska workers will likely be called on to help.
“There are going to be new opportunities and new projects that we aren’t even aware of that are going to come online,” he said. “We are going to be in a very, very good space for the next few years.”
Rindi White is the editor of The Alaska Contractor.