Losing the next generation of military fuel tankers at Fairchild Air Force Base may not be all that bad, local leaders said Thursday, in a break from previous arguments they must bed down on the West Plains.
“While we’re disappointed, we’re now asking, what’s the other potential as result of that decision?” said Todd Mielke, chief executive of Greater Spokane Inc., the region’s chamber of commerce.
According to the optimism of Mielke and others, the decision could mean more existing aircraft and a larger footprint for the West Plains military installation.
Mayor David Condon, who was a part of discussions on Capitol Hill in the most recent round of base closures as part of Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers’ staff, called the decision “disappointing” but said the community was ready to stand behind the base, whatever its future role in Air Force operations.
“I think we have to be ever vigilant,” Condon said. “We can’t increase their costs.”
Condon noted that Fairchild scores poorly in some cost metrics employed by the Air Force because of its distance from fighter aircraft, which are generally based in the central and eastern portions of the country.
The mayor joined Mielke, city council members, state legislators and local educators at a sparsely attended meeting Thursday night at the Lincoln Center to provide input on Fairchild’s importance to the community and infrastructure needs in the unlikely event the base leapfrogs Travis Air Force Base and Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst to host the aircraft.
Air Force Capts. Tyler Todd and David Stanberg, in flight suits, answered community members’ questions about their aircraft. Stanberg said the focus for personnel was their mission, not what they were flying.
“I don’t know that there’s any prestige,” Stanberg said. “We see our mission as a leader on the West Coast.”
Spokane County Commissioner Al French, who represents the West Plains, believed Fairchild was in line for additional KC-135 tankers, citing conversations with base and military personnel.
“Their expectation was they were going to be getting more 135s located at Fairchild, regardless of whether they got the 46A,” French said. “If, in fact, that happens, that’s good news for us in the community. It means more jobs and more security for the base.”
Mielke, a former Spokane County commissioner, said after discussions with Gen. Carlton D. Everhart II, commander of the United States Air Force’s Air Mobility Command, that Fairchild could be in line to receive as many as 25 additional aircraft, bringing the number of tankers from 35 to 60.
That would be roughly equal to the number of tankers Fairchild had in the mid-1990s, after the Air Force removed the B-52 bombers from the base. For several years, Fairchild was the nation’s largest refueling base until some of those planes were stationed elsewhere.
Lawmakers and local leaders have for years said securing the next generation of tankers was important to making the case Fairchild is vital to the future operations of the Air Force. That would protect the base against future rounds of closures caused by any cuts to the defense budget.
Mielke acknowledged his statements Thursday pivoted from that view.
“I think we’re in a prime position, should Congress either authorize an additional number of 46As, or if they develop the next generation tanker,” Mielke said.
Bill Savitz, chief executive of the business incubator Ignite Northwest and a member of the group Forward Fairchild, said the thinking on receiving the new tankers has changed along with the Air Force’s strategic mission. He cited the consideration of smaller bases to bed down the new aircraft, announced by the Air Force during the current selection process and criticized by some lawmakers, as an indicator receiving the new aircraft might not be as important as it once was.
“I don’t think that’s any shinedown at all on Fairchild,” Savitz said of the decision.
Both Mielke and Savitz pointed out that the new tankers will make up a minority of the refueling equipment needed to carry out the Air Force’s global mission, and KC-135s removed from other bases have a good chance to end up in Spokane.
City Council President Ben Stuckart said he, too, would push for additional KC-135 assignments at the base in the absence of the new tankers. Echoing U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, Stuckart – who has announced his intentions to run for Congress – criticized the decision-making process for the second round of new tankers, citing reports that Fairchild scored higher than Travis Air Force Base in Fairfield, California, using the military’s metrics.
“If they didn’t use the transparent process, then I’m very disappointed,” Stuckart said. He said he hadn’t seen the scoring on the bases from the Air Force, but cited conversations with officials in Olympia.
Condon declined to comment on the decision-making process of the Air Force, saying he wasn’t as close to it as when he worked in McMorris Rodgers’ office. But he noted both the congresswoman and Murray, lawmakers on opposite sides of the aisle, voiced disapproval.
Mielke said he hadn’t seen any communication from the military that the decision not to base the tankers at Fairchild had anything to do with the Spokane Tribe of Indians’ $400 million casino and retail development near the base. GSI and county commissioners panned Gov. Jay Inslee’s decision this summer to allow construction, which began in November, citing concerns it would impede the base’s flight path.
“I’ve received no information where the casino was part of the discussion,” said Mielke, who opposed the project.
French, who also opposed the project, said he hadn’t seen the Air Force’s scoring, but wondered whether the project had any influence on the tanker decision.
“How many more rounds will there be that we get passed over on? What’s the underlying obstacle? I continue to worry about that,” French said.
Stuckart, a proponent of the so-called STEP casino/hotel project that’s expected to create 5,000 new jobs, dismissed French’s criticism.
“That’s, absolutely, a zero concern,” Stuckart said. “I hope people do not use something that’s factually false to at all discuss this decision.”
Condon, who also opposed the STEP project, said the region had “made a lot of progress” protecting the base from encroachment, with acquisition of mobile home parks and other property near the base. He said any costs of diverting a plane from a specific flight plan would “definitely” factor in to base closure discussions.
David Brookbank, an area social worker and activist who is affiliated with the organization Socialist Alternative, attended Thursday’s meeting to say Fairchild shouldn’t attempt to defend itself against a closure process and criticized the optimism of local leaders on the relocation of existing aircraft.
“This is just Fairchild’s next strategy for saving itself,” Brookbank said.
The Air Force officially took a neutral position on construction of the casino. Stuckart has pointed to a public statement made by former Assistant Secretary of the Air Force Terry Yonkers in February 2014 saying the construction posed “an insignificant disruption to the Fairchild flying mission.”
Other meetings to discuss the potential site of the new tankers had been scheduled throughout the month of January in New Jersey, Delaware and North Dakota. Officials said Thursday night at least one of those public meetings may be canceled due to the Thursday announcement.
Residents wishing to weigh in on the basing decision at Fairchild have until Feb. 3 to submit their comments in writing to the Air Force. Those comments can be submitted online at http://www.kc-46a-mob4.com/.This article was changed on June 6, 2017 to correct information involving David Brookbank’s affiliation.
Staff writer Jim Camden contributed to this report.
Subscribe to the Morning Review newsletter
Get the day’s top headlines delivered to your inbox every morning by subscribing to our newsletter.