Sending the first squadron of KC-46A tankers to Fairchild Air Force Base would have provided a $292 million boost to the local economy from new construction and added more than 400 personnel to the West Plains military installation.
But it would have cost U.S. taxpayers more money and caused more disruptions than sending them to McConnell Air Force Base, which is the Pentagon’s preferred location to be the first home for the new plane, a study of the different options shows.
Barring some unforeseen problem at McConnell, the Kansas base will receive the first 36 new air-refueling tankers and lose its KC-135s beginning in 2016. Fairchild is listed in the study as a reasonable alternative to McConnell and might receive the new planes when more are produced.
Details of the effects the nation’s new tanker would have on Fairchild are spelled out in a recently released draft Environmental Impact Statement the Air Force prepared as it was deciding where the KC-46A’s first new home should be. Local, state and federal officials launched a major lobbying effort to bring the planes to Fairchild but were unsuccessful. The draft study suggests Fairchild lost out at least in part because McConnell was the less-expensive option.
The Pentagon had four bases on its list of finalists for the new Boeing tanker. Although Altus Air Force Base in Oklahoma and Grand Forks Air Force Base in North Dakota were also under consideration, the study makes clear the closest competition was between Fairchild and McConnell; each have active KC-135 wings and the infrastructure that goes with them. Altus, which will become a training facility for using the new planes, doesn’t have a full wing of the older tankers, and Grand Forks has none.
The impact statement, which will be the subject of a public hearing Wednesday in Spokane, mentions the possibility that a casino could be built by the Spokane Tribe about a mile and a half from the main entrance to Fairchild. But it doesn’t describe the casino as an insurmountable obstacle to assigning the new planes to Fairchild.
The casino, coupled with the construction of the KC-46A facilities and extra base personnel, could pose traffic problems, the study says, adding that the casino proposal has numerous road improvements to reduce traffic problems.
Making Fairchild the home to the new tankers and the casino project “in combination would add substantial new direct and indirect revenue-generating capacity” to the region, the study says.
To use any of the four bases as the home for the new, bigger tanker, the study says, some new buildings would have to be constructed while some existing structures would have to be demolished and others modified or renovated.
Fairchild would have to construct some 1.6 million square feet of new buildings and renovate about 2 million square feet of building space. One of the buildings is a historic hangar that dates to World War II, when the facility was a repair depot for B-17 bombers. McConnell will need to renovate about 180,000 square feet of buildings and construct about 420,000 square feet of new buildings.
The estimated cost for the Fairchild construction was about $292 million; the estimated cost for McConnell was $260 million.
Fairchild’s supply of tankers would have grown to 36 if it got the new planes, with an extra 438 military personnel to go with them. McConnell has 44 of the older KC-135s, so it will have fewer planes and about 77 fewer military personnel by switching to the new plane.
The study also estimates the current value the bases have to the surrounding economies. For Fairchild, the Pentagon says, the military and civilian payroll was $226 million in 2012 and taxpayers spent some $23.5 million on construction on the base.