This is not a drill.
The U.S. Air Force will soon release its criteria for selecting the first base for the KC-46A tankers, which will replace the KC-135s that have been the backbone of the air-fueling fleet since the 1960s. Since the departure of the last B-52 in 1994, they have also been the mainstay at Fairchild Air Force Base.
Preservation of Fairchild’s mission is vital to Spokane.
The base employs about 5,000 airmen and civilians, and sustains thousands of additional jobs. About 17,000 former Fairchild airmen have chosen to continue working in the Spokane area, contributing the unique skills acquired during their tours of duty.
More than $400 million has been spent on construction at the base in the last 30 years, most recently to build a new 14,000-foot runway.
Ever since a $10,000 local contribution induced the U.S. Army Air Force to build a repair depot on the West Plains in 1940, Spokane has jealously guarded its relationship with the Air Force, Fairchild and the thousands of airmen who have rotated through the base and community.
Those close, long-standing ties, as well as the capabilities of Fairchild personnel, have won the base high respect within the Air Force and among airmen, who have made it the second most-requested assignment.
None of that can be taken for granted, especially as the U.S. Department of Defense prepares for budget reductions and a scaled-back U.S. military presence around the globe. The KC-46A tankers, at an initial cost of $30 billion, may be one of the last major aircraft procurement contracts let for some time. Boeing Co. and the state of Washington were extremely fortunate to win that work after 10 years of fighting.
But as U.S. Sen. Patty Murray noted Monday in Washington, D.C., there is little rest between the end of one battle and the beginning of the next. That battle will be joined when the Air Force releases its basing criteria in March. If the tanker contract experience is any guideline, half the battle will be assuring that whatever guidelines the Pentagon comes up with are fair to all contenders.
Cost-effective implementation will be critical, added U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, who joined Murray at a Greater Spokane Incorporated event. That should play to Fairchild’s strengths in geography, access to two fuel sources and previous investment. Still, an additional $200 million may be needed to prepare Fairchild for the KC-46A.
The base will not sell itself, despite its many advantages. Every member of Washington’s congressional delegation, Gov. Chris Gregoire and Democratic and Republican legislative leaders have signed letters to Air Force Secretary Michael Donley emphasizing Fairchild’s strengths. That’s an effort everyone in the community can sign on to by writing their own letters, and supporting the businesses that support Fairchild, but particularly by nurturing individual relationships with the thousands of base personnel and veterans who live among us.