The fleet of tankers at Fairchild Air Force Base is in line to get bigger.
The Air Force announced Monday it will move 12 of its workhorse KC-135 tankers to the West Plains base by 2020 as it makes room for the new KC-46A tankers at another base. That would bring the size of Fairchild’s tanker fleet to 56, making it one of the bigger air-refueling facilities in the country.
Fairchild is the best choice for extra tankers, Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson said.
“It’s well-placed to gas up aircraft going across the Pacific and it has the facilities we need without a lot of construction, making it the lower-cost option for the taxpayer,” Wilson said in a news release.
“This is a major victory for Fairchild Air Force Base and the greater Spokane community,” Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., said in a news release. “Throughout this process, I have been proud to be a voice for our state to make clear to the highest levels of the Air Force that given its strategic location, its infrastructure and personnel, not to mention the strong support of the community, Fairchild was far and away the best choice for the KC-135 squadron.”
Fairchild had been in the running for the new tankers twice, and lost out both times, prompting Murray and other members of the Washington delegation to question the criteria the Air Force used to select the operating bases for the KC-46As. But when it announced bases in California and New Jersey would get the new planes, the Air Force hinted that it had plans for Fairchild, too.
Government and business leaders said at the time they hoped that meant the base would get the KC-135s that are reassigned from McConnell Air Force Base, the first home for the new tankers. On Monday, those hopes were realized with the 3 p.m. announcement that 12 of McConnell’s older tankers, and 370 new personnel, will be sent to Fairchild.
This time it was another base that lost out in the Air Force’s calculations. Sending the squadron of tankers to Fairchild would be less expensive than sending them to MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Florida, and put them closer to high-priority missions, it said. Construction costs at Fairchild were estimated at $48.6 million, compared to $80.7 million at MacDill.
MacDill was listed as the backup base if something should cause the Air Force to scratch Fairchild.
Murray, fellow Washington Democratic Sen. Maria Cantwell, and Republican Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers wrote to then-Air Force Secretary Lisa Dobrow in March that Fairchild was the “clear choice” to get planes being reassigned from McConnell. It has long runways and other necessary infrastructure and is “strategically located to support the Department of Defense’s operations in the Asia-Pacific region.”
Murray also briefly placed a “hold” on Wilson’s nomination after President Donald Trump submitted it until she could get answers to questions about Fairchild, according to a report in Defense News.
“This decision will mean more planes, personnel and funding for Fairchild,” Cantwell said a news release.
McMorris Rodgers also applauded the announcement, calling the base “a center of excellence” and the biggest employer in Eastern Washington. The new squadron will make Fairchild “the preeminent tanker base in the country and cements its role in the Air Force’s long-term mission of global mobility and reach,” she said in a news release.
Liz Moore, of the Peace and Justice Action League, questioned the expansion of Spokane’s participation in the overall military budget as the nation is involved in conflicts around the world. The nation would do better investing that money in schools, infrastructure and living wage jobs while looking for non-military solutions in places like Iraq and Syria, she said.
The congressional delegation and local leaders tried to make sell Fairchild’s location, facilities and strong community support when trying to land the KC-46A, but the Air Force had other concerns when it chose bases for the new plane. McConnell, near Wichita, Kansas, is closer to more air bases, allowing air crews from those bases to get practice refueling from the new tanker. Travis Air Force Base, in California, and McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst in New Jersey, are home to the Air Force’s KC-10s, which the Pentagon would like to retire because they are getting more expensive to maintain.
The KC-135 is actually older than the KC-10, and one of the oldest models of aircraft still operating in the nation’s aviation fleet. Designed in the 1950s on the same frame as the Boeing 707 commercial jetliner, the KC-135 was originally dubbed the Stratotanker, and was paired with the B-52 Stratofortress to extend the bomber’s ability to make long flights to targets around the globe.
Over time, however, most military planes were built to refuel in midair, to allow longer missions before returning to the base or aircraft carrier.
The first KC-135s came to Fairchild in 1958, when the base was home to the 92nd Bomb Wing of B-52s. The bombers left in 1994, but the Air Force sent more tankers and at one point Fairchild was the largest tanker base in the country with more than 60 KC-135s. It was common, however, for at least one squadron to be on temporary duty away from the base.