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Hearing Thursday looks at Fairchild’s second chance to land new Air Force tanker

Fairchild Air Force Base has lost out again in its bid to host the new generation of aerial refueling tankers, the KC-46A pictured here. (U.S. Air Force graphic)
Fairchild Air Force Base has lost out again in its bid to host the new generation of aerial refueling tankers, the KC-46A pictured here. (U.S. Air Force graphic)

Spokane’s second chance at convincing the Pentagon to send the nation’s new aerial tanker to Fairchild Air Force Base marks a major milestone Thursday evening when military experts come to town for a special hearing.

The Air Force has scheduled an Environmental Impact Statement scoping meeting to estimate the costs and benefits of putting the new KC-46A tankers at Fairchild sometime after 2020, when the military will need a second active-duty home for the new planes.

Fairchild, currently home to KC-135 tankers built in the 1950s and 1960s, was a finalist to be the base to get the first 36 Pegasus tankers being built by Boeing in Washington. It lost that competition in late 2013 when the final analysis concluded renovations needed to handle the new plane would cost less at McConnell Air Force Base, and the Kansas facility was closer to more bases with planes that need to be refueled.

Last year, the Air Force announced Fairchild was on the short list for the second such facility, known as Main Operating Base 4. Also on the list are Dover Air Force Base in Delaware, Travis Air Force Base in California, Grand Forks Air Force Base in North Dakota and Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst in New Jersey.

Grand Forks was also on the list as a possible first home for the KC-46A, but Fairchild scored higher in that competition. The Delaware base, which is the home to large transport planes, and the California and New Jersey bases, which are currently home to the KC-10 tankers the Air Force would like to retire, are new for this round of considerations.

Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., one of the driving forces behind securing a new tanker for the Air Force, has also been a long-time advocate of putting the earliest ones to roll off the assembly line in Everett at Fairchild, the nation’s closest base to operations in the Pacific and Asia.

“Between its location, infrastructure and community support, there’s no doubt to me that Fairchild is the best possible pick of the five potential sites,” Murray said Friday in a statement released by her staff. “But as I’ve expressed directly to the Secretary of the Air Force, I’m gravely concerned that this round of the process has been not only opaque but deeply flawed, and I am actively working in Congress to ensure we right this wrong.”

Murray protested when the list of bases being considered for the second round of tankers was expanded to include those housing KC-10s. Those two bases are located in populous and politically influential New Jersey and California.

In announcing the hearings, the Air Force said it would be studying “operational requirements, potential impacts to existing missions, housing, infrastructure and manpower.”

The local economic benefits of landing the new base is substantial: The impact statement for the first round of base selection estimated a $292 million boost to the Spokane economy from construction and additional personnel.

That means local, state and federal elected officials are actively lobbying the Pentagon to pick Fairchild in this second round. But so are their counterparts in areas around the other bases.


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