Wichita’s McConnell Air Force Base has been selected over Fairchild Air Force Base and two others to be the main operating base for the Air Force’s new KC-46A air refueling tanker.
The aircraft will replace the aging KC-135 fleet flown by crews for the past 50 years.
According to the Kansas congressional delegation, the Air Force will base 36 of the new aircraft at McConnell starting in 2016. It also will be investing $192 million in upgrades to the base.
McConnell was chosen over Fairchild, along with bases in North Dakota and Oklahoma.
The decision is a stinger for Spokane.
“We’re very disappointed in the decision,” Gov. Jay Inslee said this morning. “We’ve not seen the final scoresheets.”
Washington state’s congressional delegation expressed its collective disappointment as well, with U.S. Sen. Patty Murray demanding a briefing from the Air Force on what she called its “preliminary decision.”
“With unmatched community support, world-class facilities and infrastructure, and an ideal location to support the military’s focus on the Asia-Pacific region, it’s difficult to understand how Fairchild was not chosen as a home for the tanker fleet,” said Murray, a Democrat who chairs the Senate Budget Committee. “Later today and in the coming weeks, I will raise my deep concerns about this decision with the highest levels of our military.”
Republican U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, who represents Spokane and Eastern Washington, noted that the Air Force has committed to purchasing 179 of the new generation tankers and that today’s announcement concerns just the first 36 of the Boeing-built planes.
“This is not a loss,” McMorris Rodgers said.
Democratic U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell added that the Air Force called Fairchild “a strong contender for future tanker basing decisions.”
Forbes Field in Topeka was not selected as a site for the Air National Guard base but the delegation said the Topeka location would not be precluded from future refueling assignments.
Spokane and the Washington congressional delegation had been working toward bringing new tankers to Fairchild for more than a decade, although the efforts intensified after 2011 when Boeing was chosen to build the KC-46A as a replacement for the KC-135, which for more than six decades has been the backbone of the military’s air refueling fleet.
After the Air Force gave cursory consideration to more than 60 U.S. bases, Fairchild was placed on the short list for the first main operating base, or “bed down”, for the new plane with three other facilities: McConnell, Altus AFB in Oklahoma, and Grand Forks AFB in North Dakota.
Inslee noted that the decision does not signal Fairchild is vulnerable in the next round of Air Force base closures.
The base is an important part of the nation’s defense posture focused on the West, he said.
The Air Force is scheduled to buy 179 of the new tankers through 2028, so several other bases will eventually have their aging KC-135s replaced with KC-46As also. But being the first base comes with advantages, including a commitment in the federal budget to spend as much as $193 million over the next two years on construction to handle the new planes, for everything from hangar improvements to upgrades in fueling systems.
New planes usually also mean new missions and an increase in personnel, said Rich Hadley, president of Greater Spokane Incorporated, who has spearheaded efforts by Forward Fairchild, the organization’s push to convince the Air Force to select the West Plains base.
The total increase in the number of planes was expected to be small. Fairchild currently has between 30 and 33 KC-135s assigned to the base at any given time, although some of them are usually sent to foreign bases like Manas in Kyrgyzstan to help with air operations over Afghanistan. The first operating base for KC-46As is scheduled to get 36 of the new tankers.
But base officials can expect an increase of staff as they adjust to the new planes and work to bring them into regular Air Force service.
Being the home of the new tankers was also thought to be insurance against being threatened with closure in the foreseeable future. The prospect of being placed on a list in an upcoming round of Base Realignment and Closure decisions essentially goes away.
“That’s certainly our sense of it,” Hadley said.
Forward Fairchild enlisted the aid of the state’s Congressional delegation, governors and Legislature, and local elected leaders, who despite a wide variety of partisan stances on other topics presented a united front in lobbying the Air Force for the first new tanker base.
They stressed that Fairchild was the closest tanker base to the Pacific Rim and that the nation has invested more than $400 million in improving the base infrastructure over the last several decades. The base also has a good relationship with the surrounding community and is a requested base for Air Force personnel looking to transfer, they said.
Like the tanker it will replace, the KC-46A is built by Boeing. The KC-135, known as the Stratotanker, was built from the same prototype as the Boeing 707 jetliner, and started rolling of the assembly lines in the mid-1950s. The first 135s arrived at Fairchild in 1958, where their main mission was to refuel B-52s that were also stationed at the base. The bombers were reassigned to other bases in 1994, and more tanker squadrons were sent to Fairchild, which for several years was the largest tanker facility in the Air Force.
When the Washington congressional delegation first suggested in 2001 the Air Force start replacing the Eisenhower-era tankers by leasing a tanker version of Boeing’s 767 jetliner, Fairchild also was proposed as the plane’s first operating base and possibly as a place where the Air Force would train air crews to fly it. It provided Washington with a double shot in the arm, by keeping a Boeing assembly line open in Everett and boosting the air base near Spokane.
Those plans disintegrated, however, when the leasing plans were scrapped in the face of congressional concerns about costs and a hiring scandal involving a high-ranking Air Force official and Boeing. Congress eventually ordered the Air Force to put a replacement tanker up for bid, and Boeing’s converted 767 competed with a converted Airbus jetliner.
Airbus initially won the competition, but a later review showed the Air Force violated its own rules for selecting the best plane. A new competition was ordered, and Boeing was awarded the contract for the first of up to three rounds of planes to replace the entire KC-135 fleet by 2040.
The Air Force also decided to open up the search for the first operating base, and separate that base from the training facility. After narrowing its choices to four top candidates, it made its announcement of the preferred location today but must conduct an environmental impact study, which is required whenever the Air Force assigns a new plane to one of its facilities.
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