WASHINGTON – Making it to the short list was just the first step.
Now, the race to land the first squadron of America’s next-generation aerial tankers becomes a high-stakes contest between backers of Fairchild Air Force Base and similar groups of community and political leaders in three other states.
The four finalists were announced last week.
“We’re fully prepared to make the case for Fairchild,” said Rich Hadley, chief executive officer at Greater Spokane Incorporated, a business development group pushing to make sure the first jets are based on Spokane County’s West Plains.
Joining him will be U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, a Seattle-area Democrat who now chairs the powerful Senate Budget Committee. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, a Republican from Spokane, also has been a vocal advocate for Fairchild. She, too, is on the rise in the nation’s capital as the newly-minted Republican Conference chairwoman, giving the Fairchild bid two ranking members in the House and Senate.
But the lobbying efforts are hitting high gear across the Midwest, too, as the Air Force analyzes the four finalists.
Grand Forks Air Force Base in North Dakota, Altus Air Force Base in Oklahoma and McConnell Air Force Base in Wichita, Kan., join Fairchild on the short list for the first KC-46A tankers. The winner will be named the first main operating base for the aircraft. Altus and McConnell are also in contention to house the aircraft for training purposes.
All four bases have housed the KC-46A’s predecessor, the KC-135. The Boeing-produced aircraft have been in service since the Eisenhower administration.
Last year, Greater Spokane Incorporated began an initiative called Fairchild First to land the new aircraft. The effort pulls together representatives at the local, state and national levels. Hadley said he was thrilled with the recent announcement and that Fairchild boasts “a full package” of infrastructure, strategic location and community support that make it desirable as the home base for the Washington-produced aircraft.
But Spokane isn’t the only community with its eyes on the 90-ton prize.
Kansas officials postured last week to make the case for McConnell. Originally a public airstrip, McConnell was converted during the 1950s and named after a trio of brothers who were pilots in World War II. The base began housing KC-135 tankers in 1971.
Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., lauded McConnell’s selection as a finalist for the new planes and called it “the premiere ‘super tanker’ base in the nation.” The Wichita installation serves as home base for 63 aircraft.
Moran serves on the Senate’s Appropriations and Veterans Affairs committees. Rep. Mike Pompeo, of Wichita, is a decorated graduate of West Point and has roots in the airplane manufacturing industry.
Wichita formed a “Tanker Task Force” to promote McConnell, similar to the Fairchild First project. Wayne Roberts chairs that task force and said McConnell’s amenities make it an ideal location for either the operating base or training unit distinction.
“We’re going after both,” Roberts said.
Wichita was initially floated as a site where Boeing might construct the KC-46A. In December 2011, the company announced production would occur exclusively in Everett while it studied whether to close sprawling defense production facilities in Kansas. The company decided early last year to close the division and last week said the property would be on the market by month’s end.
Roberts said the interest in housing the tankers was unrelated to Boeing ending its production in Wichita.
The Altus air base lies just a few miles northeast of downtown in the Oklahoma city of nearly 20,000. Its primary mission is training airlift and aerial refueling crews, and it houses 40 aircraft, according to base officials.
Joe Leverett, an Altus physician who chairs the city’s Military Affairs Committee, said he was “pleasantly surprised” by the base’s selection as a finalist for operations. Now flying the KC-135 and C-17, Altus once flew four types of aircraft and has ramp and air space ideal for the new tankers, Leverett said.
But based on the criteria, Fairchild and McConnell may be better fits as a base of operations, he said.
“We don’t want to get our hopes up,” Leverett said. “But we’d love to take on that mission as well.”
Leading the charge for Altus in Washington will likely be Republican Sen. James Inhofe, a member of the Senate’s Standing Committee on Armed Services and a former Army pilot. He said last week the KC-46A “would be a great fit with the existing programs at Altus.”
In North Dakota, Grand Forks Air Force Base sits 15 miles northwest of its namesake. Residents pitched in to help the Air Force buy land for the base in 1956.
Its runways were last repaired eight years ago. With those repairs under way, some of its flight operations went through Fairchild. KC-135s last took off from Grand Forks in December 2010, ending a run of the aircraft at the base that began in 1960. Grand Forks tankers were transferred to McConnell.
Republican Sen. John Hoeven, the senior senator from North Dakota, said in prepared remarks last week that the delegation of himself and two freshman lawmakers, Sen. Heidi Heitkamp and Rep. Kevin Cramer, had been doing “all we can to push for Grand Forks’ selection as one of the active duty bases.” Hoeven serves on the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Military Construction.
The Air Force will conduct inspections this spring as lawmakers ponder automatic defense spending cuts set to kick in March 1. Congress voted last year to suspend base closures or consolidation, but Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said in August such moves are inevitable.
Air Force spokeswoman Ann Stefanek said the finalists were selected from an initial field of 54 based on their desirability as homes for the new tankers, not consideration of the looming cuts known as “sequestration.”
“The Air Force does not know if or how sequestration will affect KC-46A procurement or basing,” Stefanek said.
The last round of base closures, begun in 2005, led to realignment for the Grand Forks base. For the last two years, the base has been flying unmanned aircraft.
The Air Force will whittle the list to a preferred location this spring. A final decision is expected in spring 2014, and the tankers are set to begin arriving in 2017.