Lately, it seems no government secret is safe, but the future of Fairchild Air Force Base sure remains a mystery.
And that mystery deepened when it was reported that the base suddenly has more competitors for the new refueling tanker, the KC-46A Pegasus.
In the first round of competition for placing the tanker, Fairchild finished second to McConnell Air Force Base in Kansas. So local officials felt confident that Fairchild would move to the top of the list in the next round. But that was 2013, and apparently some behind-the-scenes machinations have taken place to open up the competition to some smaller bases.
In 2013, the Air Force required bases to have room for 36 tankers, which narrowed the field significantly. But now it’s considering bases that can accommodate 24 tankers, which puts Fairchild up against 10 other bases. In another change, the Air Force is looking to also replace KC-10s, not just KC-135 tankers.
That’s distressing news, and it raises questions that U.S. Sen. Patty Murray can’t get answered, even though she was critical to getting the tanker legislation through Congress.
“I am deeply concerned that they may have shifted things and have not been open and transparent about why,” Murray said Tuesday. “Fairchild is the best base to bed down these KC-46As, for the interests of national security.”
U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers also is frustrated with the change and is having little luck finding out why it occurred.
“They keep saying that this is due to providing budget and operational flexibility,” McMorris Rodgers said. “They’re not giving a lot of details.”
It’s troubling that Air Force officials would change the rules without being transparent. They know communities make critical decisions aimed at preserving air bases. This is like changing the flight plan and making the pilot guess the route.
This region has made many growth-related decisions that are base-friendly. We’ve been told encroachment can imperil a base’s future. The best strategy is to avoid the risk, and for that reason, we hope Gov. Jay Inslee turns down the Spokane Tribe’s request for a casino near the base.
But this latest news makes it seem like Air Force decisions are arbitrary. The base is clearly important to Spokane, but is it important to the Air Force? In 2013, it sure seemed like it.
By opening up the competition for the KC-46As, it looks like political concerns, not operational ones, have moved to the forefront.
During the last competition, this region’s leaders and the congressional delegation put forward a strong argument for why Fairchild was a good choice for the tankers. They touted the base’s size, infrastructure and proximity to the Pacific Rim, because they were told those were crucial factors.
The Air Force should be more open about any shift in criteria. Otherwise, communities are flying blind.
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