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Fairchild a finalist once again to house new refueling tankers

An illustration of KC-46A tanker. (COURTESY OF FAIRCHILD AIRFORCE BASE)
An illustration of KC-46A tanker. (COURTESY OF FAIRCHILD AIRFORCE BASE)

The U.S. Air Force has told members of Washington’s congressional delegation that Fairchild Air Force Base is once again a finalist to house the military’s next generation of air-refueling tankers.

This is the second time the Spokane installation has made the short list to bed down the Boeing KC-46A Pegasus, designed as a replacement to the KC-135 Stratotankers that have flown from Fairchild since the 1950s. Fairchild was passed up in May 2013 for the first round of new tankers in favor of McConnell Air Force Base in Wichita, Kansas.

Spokespersons for Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers and Sen. Patty Murray confirmed Thursday morning they’d received briefings from the Air Force designating Fairchild as a finalist for the KC-46A. A decision on where the new tankers will be stationed is expected at the end of this year.

In a statement, McMorris Rodgers said she was pleased with the designation.

“Today’s announcement affirms that Fairchild Air Force Base is one of the few bases with the capacity and expertise necessary to serve as the home for the next generation aerial refueling tanker,” she said. “The Air Force should choose Fairchild as the preferred alternative among the remaining candidate bases because of its visionary leadership, strategic location, mission expertise and community support. I intend to work with my Washington State colleagues and others to continue making that case to the Air Force as vigorously as possible.”

McMorris Rodgers had been meeting in recent weeks with top members of Air Force brass to make her pitch for the new tankers, in addition to recruitment efforts dating back several years.

Murray, who worked in the Senate to approved the Pentagon’s request for new tankers at a cost of $46 billion, has criticized the current process of selecting the next mobile operations base because it includes installations with less aircraft capacity, without an explanation. The Air Force is now considering bases that could house just 24 tankers, as opposed to the threshold of 36 aircraft used in the first round of evaluations.

“Fairchild Air Force Base is integral to Spokane, to Washington state and to our national security, and I strongly believe Fairchild is the best choice for the next KC-46A Main Operating Base,” Murray said in a statement Thursday. “But I continue to have serious concerns about the manner in which Air Force senior leadership is running this process, which is why I included language in recent legislation to help ensure this selection is made in a fair and transparent manner.”

Murray pushed for a provision in a recent appropriations bill requiring the secretary of the Air Force to deliver a report detailing what effects, if any, selecting a base with a lower aircraft capacity would have on the branch’s operations. The Senate still must vote on that bill.

Mayor David Condon, in a statement, also praised the Air Force’s decision.

“Fairchild’s model of cooperation between the active duty wing and the Air National Guard, combined with the community’s tremendous respect and support, makes it the perfect fit for the KC-46,” Condon said.

The Air Force on Thursday afternoon released a full list of the bases under consideration. They include Dover Air Force Base in Dover, Delaware; Grand Forks Air Force Base in Grand Forks, North Dakota; Travis Air Force Base in Fairfield, California; and Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst in Wrightstown, New Jersey.

The California and New Jersey bases house some of the Air Force’s last remaining KC-10 tankers, a model introduced in the 1980s as a supplemental aircraft for the KC-135. The Air Force plans to phase out the KC-10s with KC-46A aircraft, which cost less to maintain and fly.

The Grand Forks base was in the running in 2013 to house the first line of new tankers, but scored lower than Fairchild on the Air Force’s metrics.

Greater Spokane Inc., the area’s chamber of commerce, raised concerns about possible encroachment at the West Plains military installation after Gov. Jay Inslee earlier this month approved a $400 million gaming and retail development proposed by the Spokane Tribe of Indians. Inslee and project supporters said they’d received assurances from the Air Force that the development would not adversely affect the base’s mission.

Spokane County commissioners, who also voiced concerns about potential encroachment as a result of the casino project, also lauded Thursday’s announcement.

“The Board of County Commissioners is delighted to hear that Fairchild is still in the running,” Commisisoner Al French said in a statement. “If Fairchild is selected, it would mean a new mission for the base and secure their future in the region.”


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