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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Fairchild loses bid for new tankers

Col. Brian Newberry, 92nd Air Refueling Wing commander, speaks at a news conference Wednesday at Fairchild Air Force Base after the Air Force announced that McConnell Air Force Base would be the preferred KC-46A operating base. (Colin Mulvany)

Turns out the most important thing in becoming the first base for the Air Force’s new air refueling tanker is the same as the most important thing in real estate: Location, location, location.

Fairchild Air Force Base lost out Wednesday to McConnell Air Force Base near Wichita, Kan., because McConnell had a better location, according to the scoring system the military used to make its decision.

McConnell received more points in the competition to become the first Main Operating Base – or MOB 1 – because it is closer to more bases with other Air Force planes whose pilots will have to learn how to refuel from the new tanker. It’s also close to Altus Air Force Base, near Oklahoma City, the base where crews will learn to fly the new plane. And it needs less money from Congress to retrofit its facilities to accommodate the new plane.

“The training mission was the one category where McConnell really beat Fairchild,” said Shay Hancock of Denny Miller Associates, which lobbies on Washington state issues.

Local, state and federal elected officials who had been pushing Fairchild for the selection expressed various degrees of shock and disappointment.

“We’re very disappointed in the decision,” Gov. Jay Inslee said Wednesday morning. “We’ve not seen the final score sheets.”

Washington’s congressional delegation expressed its collective disappointment as well, with U.S. Sen. Patty Murray demanding a briefing from the Air Force on what she called its “preliminary decision.”

“With unmatched community support, world-class facilities and infrastructure, and an ideal location to support the military’s focus on the Asia-Pacific region, it’s difficult to understand how Fairchild was not chosen as a home for the tanker fleet,” said Murray, a Democrat who chairs the Senate Budget Committee. “Later today and in the coming weeks, I will raise my deep concerns about this decision with the highest levels of our military.”

Addressing reporters Wednesday night in a Fairchild hangar, 92nd Air Refueling Wing Commander Col. Brian Newberry said the congressional delegation first informed him of the decision in a morning phone call.

“I really did not have any insights or not,” Newberry said. Following a base visit in February, Fairchild leadership “were not pulled into the weeds” of the decision-making process by Air Force brass, Newberry added.

Fairchild’s location on the gateway to the Pacific Rim and potential trouble spots in Asia where the U.S. military might be needed – a point that everyone from local business organizations and civic leaders, state officials and the congressional delegation stressed in lobbying efforts with the Pentagon – wasn’t worth as much when the Air Force toted up the points in the multimillion-dollar competition for MOB 1.

Sources insist it wasn’t a matter of political clout that made McConnell the preferred location and Fairchild a “reasonable alternative” – a backup position akin to being runner-up in the Miss America pageant, possibly moving to the forefront if McConnell for some reason is unable to fulfill its role. The Spokane area arguably has the requisite bipartisan clout, with Murray as the No. 4 person in the Senate Democratic Caucus and Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers the No. 4 person in the House Republican Caucus, and members of the state delegation on other key military committees.

“Our delegation worked really hard,” said Rich Hadley of Greater Spokane Incorporated, which spearheaded the Forward Fairchild lobbying effort. “All, I’m confident, put on a full-court press.”

For Fairchild to go from runner-up to assuming the crown of the first base for new tankers, the upcoming environmental impact statement would have to turn up something that ruled out sending the KC-46A to the Kansas base. Considering McConnell, like Fairchild, has long been a tanker base, with the older, noisier, less fuel-efficient KC-135s, no one is hanging much hope on that.

Instead, some people are adopting a variation of the “wait till next year” refrain of a losing sports franchise. The Air Force is buying 179 KC-46As from Boeing, and after McConnell gets its 35, the next several dozen have to go somewhere.

McMorris Rodgers insisted “this is not a loss” because those planes could go to Fairchild. Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., called the West Plains base a “strong contender for future tanker basing decisions.”

“The fact that we did so well in the first round means that we will be looked at favorably in further rounds,” Newberry said. “The community should take heart in that.”

But first Fairchild will have to be left off any list of bases the military should close or restructure. Being named MOB 1 was thought to be a free pass for any upcoming round of the Base Realignment and Closure Commission. Being a “reasonable alternative” probably doesn’t offer the same security.

When the next BRAC process will occur is unknown. Congress is currently considering legislation that would forbid a round of base closings in the upcoming fiscal year. But one is likely before KC-46As are available for a second base, in 2019 or 2020.

Fairchild’s local supporters will be doing double duty, fighting BRAC and lobbying for MOB 2. In many respects, the two efforts will run on parallel tracks.

“We can’t change our geographic location. We’ve already got fairly modern infrastructure,” Hadley said. “We’re going to concentrate on preventing encroachment.”

Staff writer Kip Hill contributed to this report.