Fairchild Air Force Base is a tremendous asset to the armed forces of the United States.
The U.S. Air Force decision to base the KC-46A tanker program at McConnell Air Force Base near Wichita, Kan., does not change that fact. Although there is disappointment Fairchild was passed over for the initial allocation of 36 new tankers, the Airway Heights base remains a contender for some number of tankers as deployment of the 179 planes provided for in a contract with Boeing continues.
But with more austere defense budgets likely, nothing can be taken for granted. Procurements can be cut back, and priorities shifted. As the 9/11 attacks proved, the nature of the threats against the United States change, and will change, and the order of forces that will be needed to respond will change, as well.
In fact, a fundamental shift of defense policy focus toward the Asia-Pacific region was supposed to play to Fairchild’s advantage. None of the other three finalists for tanker deployment are west of the Rocky Mountains, or even close to the east slope.
But McConnell has the advantage of size — it’s the largest tanker base in the world — and proximity to other Air Force bases. It, like Fairchild, also has a long, close relationship with the surrounding communities, and Wichita’s advocates were as determined as Forward Fairchild, the Greater Spokane Incorporated effort to promote the base.
We are confident Air Force Secretary Michael Donley knows Fairchild’s value to the military’s global mission and the strength of community support. Spokane representatives and members of Washington’s congressional delegation have met with him repeatedly to make Fairchild’s case. We do not doubt he was impartial in the consideration given the four finalists, as he was during the contentious bidding between Boeing and Airbus for the tanker contract.
You can’t win them all. Unless an environmental review finds problems, the Air Force is unlikely to reconsider the decision in favor of McConnell. Spokane must look ahead.
An upcoming Base Realignment and Closure review of all military facilities may precede a decision on future tanker deployments. Getting the KC-46A first would have insulated Fairchild from that process. The base and community will have to restate the case for its preservation. The debriefing that will follow Wednesday’s announcement should give Fairchild partisans a head start.
The environmental review the four finalists will undergo should also be advantageous. It would be very helpful to know whether the Spokane Tribe’s proposed casino figured in the decision, if only to put that issue to rest for good.
Wednesday’s decision does not diminish Fairchild, its airmen, its civilian workers or their mission. The community should congratulate McConnell and Wichita, then show the Pentagon why securing a future for Fairchild best serves the security interests of the United States.
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