A change in the nation’s overall defense plans could bring more planes to Fairchild Air Force Base by the end of this decade. It might also mean a name change to something like Joint Base Fairchild.
The planes would be Navy fighter jets from an additional aircraft carrier that could be sent to a new home in Puget Sound.
That’s part of a scenario legislators were urged to consider this week during a briefing on where the state’s already large military presence could grow larger.
John Lane of the governor’s office told the Veterans and Military Affairs Joint Committee that one possibility involves stationing a Navy fighter wing at Fairchild if the Navy sends a new carrier to a Puget Sound homeport.
“It is an opportunity that is worth pursuing,” said Shay Hancock of Denny Miller & Associates, a Washington, D.C., firm that specializes in defense and aerospace issues and prepared the report for the state. “It could take a huge amount of time and energy to make it happen.”
The report highlights the state’s main military installations and their estimated annual economic impact of $12 billion. But it also notes the Navy is shifting its global emphasis, from an even split between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans to a 60-40 split toward the Pacific, Hancock said. That would mean moving at least one carrier group from an East Coast homeport to a home along the Pacific Coast. The Puget Sound is a likely home for that new carrier because California, home to other Pacific-based Navy carriers, is full. Naval Base Kitsap, which includes facilities in Bremerton and nearby Bangor and Keyport, has room.
But there isn’t room in the skies above the Puget Sound for the carrier’s fighter planes. The Navy’s EA-6B Prowlers are based at Whidbey Island, but the fighter wings for Bremerton- and Everett-based carriers are housed in California. When the ships leave port, they travel down to collect the planes and their equipment at the start of a tour. That adds an extra two days to any trip before they arrive at their theater of operations.
Basing a fighter wing at Joint Base Lewis-McChord won’t work. With nearby Sea-Tac airport and Boeing Field, the airspace is too crowded, and the base is already undergoing rapid expansion for new Army units.
Fairchild has space for the planes, and some training routes for Navy planes are nearby, Hancock said. The Pentagon could also refurbish a runway at the Yakima Training Ground for the planes to practice takeoffs and landings.
The move also would provide more opportunities for Fairchild tanker crews to practice refueling Navy planes, he said, and help with what most state and local officials consider a top priority for the base: getting the next wing of KC-46A tankers.
Earlier this year, Fairchild lost out to McConnell Air Force Base in Kansas to be the first home for the new tankers. While the disruptions and cost were slightly lower at McConnell, one of the key advantages it had was its closeness to other air bases in the nation’s midsection, Hancock said.
“Fairchild lost out to McConnell on the training mission,” he said. “The new tankers will need to get people trained up on the new system.”
Air Force tankers refuel Navy planes as well, and having a Navy fighter wing at Fairchild would provide close training opportunities that other bases wouldn’t have.
Members of the state’s congressional delegation have been briefed on the possibility of the new carrier in the Puget Sound and the carrier wing at Fairchild, but one source said most recognize “several open questions” about the idea, such as a lack of certain types of training facilities for the Navy air crews in the region and expectations from the California delegation that additional fighter planes would be based in that state.
Creating a base that Air Force tankers and Navy fighters share would be unprecedented, but putting two military branches in a shared facility is not, Lane said.
“Before 2005, joint basing like Lewis-McChord was unknown,” he said, referring to the Pierce County facility that has joined separate Army and Air Force bases into one.