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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Here’s what’s at stake as Air Force considers Fairchild to host new KC-46 tanker

Sept. 19, 2021 Updated Mon., Sept. 20, 2021 at 4:07 p.m.

Fairchild Air Force Base KC-135R crews and base personnel gather during a 64th birthday celebration of the plane Aug. 31, 2020.  (Dan Pelle/The Spokesman-Review)
Fairchild Air Force Base KC-135R crews and base personnel gather during a 64th birthday celebration of the plane Aug. 31, 2020. (Dan Pelle/The Spokesman-Review)

WASHINGTON – “Fairchild to Get Huge Jet Refueling Planes,” the headline on The Spokesman-Review’s front page declared, atop a photo of a brand-new Boeing KC-135 Stratotanker filling up a B-52 bomber in flight.

It was Sept. 30, 1956, and the Air Force had just announced that the base outside Spokane would be among the nation’s first homes for the flying gas stations that would revolutionize U.S. air power, allowing planes to stay in the air longer and operate across greater distances.

Much has changed since the first KC-135s arrived at Fairchild in 1958, but the 65-year-old aircraft remains the backbone of the Air Force’s aerial refueling operations. Today, Fairchild is the largest tanker base under the Air Force’s Air Mobility Command, home to a fleet of 63 KC-135s shared by the 92nd and 141st Air Refueling Wings, the latter a unit of the Washington Air National Guard.

But times are changing. In May, the Air Force announced Fairchild as one of two candidates – along with MacDill Air Force Base in Florida – to receive the next generation of tanker, the Boeing KC-46 Pegasus.

Experts say Fairchild’s strategic location and infrastructure – coupled with the fact the military will likely rely on the KC-135 for decades to come – means the base’s status as a key aerial refueling hub is not in jeopardy. But the Air Force’s decision, expected sometime this fall, could have major implications both for the greater Spokane area and for U.S. military strategy.

“Fairchild Air Force Base has always been on the frontlines of world geopolitics,” said Brian Newberry, a retired Air Force colonel who served as commander of the 92nd Air Wing from 2012 -14. “From the Cold War days, when we were one of the closest tanker bases to the former Soviet Union, to today where we are the front door to the Pacific, now a strategic focus of our nation.”

When the KC-135 entered service in 1957, it was a cutting-edge jet that replaced Boeing’s propeller-driven KC-97 tanker, but the Air Force’s nearly 400 Stratotankers have begun to show their age.

“These aircraft have been in the USAF tanker fleet for decades, are very near the end of service life, and are suffering many age-related issues that negatively impact operations, maintainability, and cost,” said David Orletsky, associate director of Project AIR FORCE at the RAND Corporation, a think tank that provides analysis to the U.S. military.

The KC-46, Orletsky said, is expected to be easier to maintain and offers several advantages over the older plane, including the ability to be refueled in the air itself. But the rollout of the new tanker has not gone smoothly.

The Air Force started trying to find a replacement for the KC-135 in 2002 but didn’t issue a call for proposals until 2007, after an initial sole-source contract landed a former Air Force official in prison on corruption charges. Following more contract disputes, the first KC-46 wasn’t delivered until 2019.

Fairchild was a candidate to be the first home of the KC-46, but in May 2013 the Air Force announced McConnell Air Force Base in Kansas as the first main operating base for the new tanker, with Fairchild named as one of two “reasonable alternatives” along with North Dakota’s Grand Forks Air Force Base.

Newberry, who was Fairchild’s commander at the time, noted the Air Force’s decision was made amid the automatic federal spending cuts known as “sequestration” that took effect in March 2013. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., struck a deal with then-Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wisc., to end the sequester later that year.

“McConnell was the right decision based on the dollars-and-cents analysis,” Newberry said, adding that it was unclear how other considerations factored into the 2013 decision, although he said it came after “a very open and transparent process.”

Stacie Pettyjohn – director of the defense program at the Center for a New American Security, a bipartisan think tank in Washington, D.C. – said that while she couldn’t speak to that particular decision, “I wouldn’t be surprised if it did have to do more with budget limitations, sequestration and trying to find a way to economize.”

“That has often factored in, and that’s been a major driver of U.S. defense policy decisions for the last several decades,” she said. “In general, domestic basing decisions are driven by many things in addition to strategy.”

One of those other factors, Pettyjohn said, is the existing infrastructure at a given base and what aircraft are already stationed there. Another is politics, in part because Congress writes the checks for the military.

Murray – a senior member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, the panel that approves federal spending – has pressed for Fairchild to receive the KC-46.

“They have consistently been a top-scoring installation, because of their strategic location, their existing infrastructure and their strong community support, and it’s long past time to get them those tankers,” Murray told the Air Force’s chief of staff and acting secretary in an Appropriations Subcommittee hearing on June 8. “But I am concerned that the proposed divestments of KC-135s will hurt the air refueling mission based in Washington state.”

After Fairchild was announced as a candidate to receive the KC-46, Murray sent a letter along with Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Spokane, urging the Air Force secretary to choose the base because of its proximity to Asia and the passion and commitment of Fairchild airmen.

Another factor Murray and McMorris Rodgers cited in the letter was Fairchild’s importance to the local economy. With more than 3,200 military personnel and more than 1,400 civilian employees, the base is the largest single-site employer in Eastern Washington, said Jessica Kirk, business retention, expansion and startup director at Greater Spokane Incorporated.

The 92nd is the Air Force’s only “super wing” of KC-135s, with four refueling squadrons, and it alone employs 2,671 active-duty members of the military and 452 civilians, according to Capt. Kaitlin Holmes, a Fairchild spokeswoman.

Fairchild’s latest economic impact statement estimates the base’s total economic impact at more than $523 million a year, including military and civilian payroll, contracts and jobs created off the base.

After being passed over as a KC-46 base in 2013, Fairchild was spurned again in 2017 in favor of bases in New Jersey and California. That decision left Murray “outraged,” after the senator included a provision in an appropriations bill aimed at increasing transparency in the base selection process.

Later in 2017, the Air Force chose Fairchild to receive an additional squadron of KC-135s, making it the home of a “super wing” comprised of four refueling squadrons. But while that expansion helped cement Fairchild’s status as a key refueling hub, it may have hurt the base’s chances of landing the new tanker.

Newberry said before McConnell Air Force Base was chosen as the first KC-46 base, it had housed a KC-135 “super wing” and been a center of training and maintenance activity for the older plane. The decision to make the Kansas base a hub of KC-46 operations, he said, has gradually led Fairchild to become the new “KC-135 university.”

“Any time you make a decision about the KC-46, you have to consider the KC-135, too, because both are vital to our ability to meet the air refueling demand,” Newberry said, explaining that the Air Force will need to keep the older, higher-maintenance planes flying for many years to come.

“The KC-135 is a senior lady of the fleet, the backbone,” he said. “Incredible airmen have to keep this nearly 70-year-old aircraft flying high. Fairchild is clearly the center of air refueling excellence in the world, and they will continue to be that for decades.”

In the defense spending bill for fiscal year 2022, the House Armed Services Committee noted that “the KC-135 is projected to fly for potentially another 30 years,” directing the Air Force secretary to brief the committee on efforts to modernize the plane.

The KC-135’s age could also factor into the decision between Fairchild and MacDill, which is located on the shore of Florida’s Tampa Bay, Newberry said. The KC-135 needs to be regularly rotated to other bases away from saltwater because of corrosion concerns, he said, and the dry Inland Northwest air makes Fairchild an easier place to maintain that “geriatric airframe.”

Pettyjohn said the Air Force’s decision to base the new tankers near either Spokane or Tampa “rests in part on where it is laying its bets in terms of the regional prioritization for the Department of Defense and the nation at large.”

“In reality, the tankers can reach anywhere on the globe, so where they are in the U.S. isn’t a determining factor in where they are used, but they will be more responsive if they are based on one coast or the other,” she said.

While planes based in Florida have easier access to Latin America, Africa and Europe, those in the Northwest are closer to the Indo-Pacific region, which the Pentagon’s 2018 National Defense Strategy identified as a leading priority.

The transition to the KC-46 has been further complicated by the Air Force starting to retire the KC-10 Extender, a larger tanker that can carry nearly twice as much fuel as the plane meant to replace it.

Whether the Air Force chooses Fairchild for the next active-duty KC-46 component, Newberry said the base will continue to be “an oasis of air refueling in the Pacific Northwest” and a strategically vital part of the U.S. military’s presence in a region that promises to remain a high priority.

Asked about the status of the base selection process, a spokesman for Air Force Air Mobility Command, Capt. Christopher Herbert, said only that site surveys at Fairchild and MacDill were completed this summer, comparing personnel, facilities, infrastructure and other factors at the two bases. The Air Force says it will announce its decision sometime this fall.

Correction: The original version of this story misstated the total number of employees at Fairchild Air Force Base. The base employs more than 3,200 active-duty personnel and more than 1,400 civilians, and the 92nd Air Rrefueling Wing alone employs 2,671 active-duty members of the military and 452 civilians.

Orion Donovan-Smith's reporting for The Spokesman-Review is funded in part by Report for America and by members of the Spokane community. This story can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information on this, please contact our newspaper’s managing editor.

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