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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Political wrangling leaves future of Fairchild in the dark

 (The Spokesman-Review)
(The Spokesman-Review)
Bert Caldwell The Spokesman-Review

Two initiatives important to the future of Fairchild Air Force Base encountered some turbulence in Washington, D.C., last week. Sometimes, elections spawn their own weather.

The House Armed Services Committee was an active front.

Members voted 60-0 to forward a $422 billion defense reauthorization bill to the full House for final action. Last-minute additions recommend a two-year delay in an ongoing review of which military bases could be closed without compromising readiness. Also, the Pentagon would be directed to proceed with the lease/purchase of 100 Boeing 767 airplanes that would be modified to replace some existing KC-135s, many of which entered service decades ago. About 70 of those planes are assigned to Fairchild, which with 5,000 Air Force and civilian personnel on its payroll is the area’s largest employer.

The Air Force forecasts the potential elimination of 24 of its bases, but Spokane officials expect the base reassessment process to work to Fairchild’s benefit. The core mission of its active duty and Air National Guard units, refueling military aircraft in flight, clearly has been critical to the deployment of U.S. forces in the Middle East. In addition, the base is the home of the Air Force Survival School, and it continues to be a weapons depot despite the departure a decade ago of the B-52s that used to share Fairchild with the tankers. Substantial sums have been spent to keep the base fit for duty.

Because the base multitasks so well, officials hope more will be added to Fairchild’s portfolio, perhaps responsibility for teaching survival skills to members of the other armed services. Hundreds of acres are available for expansion, and a new state law discourages encroachment.

Three local task forces organized under a “Forward Fairchild” umbrella are monitoring the assessment process, as are lobbyists in Washington. The original timetable called for release of a list of recommended closures in September 2005, with final action by the president two months later.

Armed Services Committee members want the process shelved until the military better understands the stresses created by the war in Iraq and what realignments might improve its ability to respond. Some bases in Europe, for example, could be moved farther east, or units could be repositioned in the United States. Spokesmen for Rep. George Nethercutt and Sen. Patty Murray say both are confident bases in the state are secure, and delay will increase the opportunity to capture some of the military units that will be adrift when their bases are closed.

The full House will take up the reauthorization bill this week. Putting off base reassessment until another election cycle will play well there. The Senate version does not address the issue. Resistance looms from the White House and Department of Defense, where Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has long been an advocate of a modernized military. Closing bases would eventually free more money for new weapons, like the 767 tanker.

Rumsfeld has aligned himself with the go-slow faction awaiting additional studies before a $23.5 billion deal for 100 Boeing Co. planes goes forward. That purchase has been caught between those who say new planes are long overdue, and those who say the KC-135 remains serviceable at lower cost to the taxpayer. That faction drew strength from a not-yet-released report from the Defense Science Board on which some members of Congress were briefed last week. It says Air Force repair depots can manage the effects of corrosion on older planes. But should a problem develop, grounding a significant number of planes, quick fixes could prove extremely expensive and the U.S. defense posture could be compromised. The economics could shift to favor the 767.

In the meantime, Boeing edges toward a decision on whether to keep the 767 production line in Everett going, with civilian orders drying up for the 20-year-old design.

The 767, or whatever option the Pentagon and Congress eventually agree on, is important to Fairchild because Air Force officials have said the West Plains base would receive the first squadron, as well as responsibility for training all crews for the new plane.

Estimates on expenditures for base upgrades to handle the new mission have ranged up to $200 million.

An Air Force study on the need for new tankers could be completed by the end of the year, at which time a decision by the Defense secretary could make a final decision on the 767’s fate.

The Armed Services Committee and House may want to fast-track the tanker acquisition, but Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., has been a dogged foe of the deal and its cost. He will not be run over. The 767 may not be dressed in military gray for another couple years.

In the meantime, Fairchild crews continue to perform their missions with aplomb, high above the crosswinds blowing above the Potomac River.

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