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Friday, July 4, 2014

Kansas lawmakers hope to land new tankers at McConnell Air Force Base

By Dion Lefler
The Wichita Eagle

Although Wichita won’t be building the Air Force’s next-generation air refueling tankers, three area members of Congress are working to try to get the planes based here.

U.S. Rep. Mike Pompeo and Sens. Pat Roberts and Jerry Moran are seeking to convince the Air Force to base at least 36 new KC-46A tankers at McConnell Air Force Base when the new planes are put into service.

The new air tankers will phase out the venerable KC-135R tankers, 48 of which are now based at McConnell.

The lawmakers are requesting that McConnell be named as the first of what will eventually be about 10 main operating bases for the aircraft, which would help inoculate Wichita from future rounds of base reductions and closures.

The decision could come by the end of the year.

It marks yet another high-stakes competition for Wichita and its congressional delegation, which helped Boeing land the $35 billion Air Force contract to build the new tankers — and then saw the company decide to close its Wichita plant and shift the tanker work to the Seattle area.

Basing the planes in Wichita would be a substantial boost to the local economy, according to the elected officials and a university economist who has studied McConnell’s impact.

“This is a big thing, a major decision,” said Roberts. He said that he and his Kansas colleagues are working to “showcase McConnell and all it has to offer the Air Force.”

The three members of Congress who represent Wichita outlined their case last week in a letter to Air Force Secretary Michael B. Donley. Roberts said he expects to have follow-up meetings with Donley soon.

One of McConnell’s biggest attractions is its central location in the country, the Congress members said.

“The geographic location of McConnell AFB is one of its greatest assets, providing the U.S. Air Force with the strategic flexibility needed to carry out a variety of missions, both overseas and at home,” the letter said. “Historical data on refueling tracks over Kansas substantiates the importance of geography and McConnell AFB as a significant contributor.”

The bases seen as primary competitors are in the corners of the country in Washington state and Florida.

Pompeo said putting the planes at McConnell, already the nation’s largest tanker base, is “a really good strategic fit for America.”

It’s also a good fit for the community at large, Pompeo said.

The Air Force hasn’t indicated how many new jobs would be created at the base. Pompeo said it wouldn’t quite double but would involve “significant growth in the number of soldiers stationed there.”

The first 18 KC-46A’s, based on Boeing’s 767 airliner, are scheduled to be delivered to the Air Force in 2017.

The KC-135R’s, the Air Force’s mainstay tanker since it was put in service in 1957, are expected to continue flying for years as the new tankers are phased in to the nation’s air fleet.

Pompeo said the base and Sedgwick County and its communities, primarily Derby and Wichita, have developed a strong working relationship with the base and those who work there.

If Wichita does land the tankers, it would be very good for the community with “a whole bunch of new families coming in,” Pompeo said. “We know the kind of folks it brings with it.”

About 85 percent of base personnel live off the base.

Pompeo said the local authorities and the base work closely together on flight paths and other issues to accommodate “a fully operational base” while ensuring those operations don’t interfere unduly with the community.

Local schools are geared to meet the needs of children who have a parent deploys overseas, Pompeo said.

“We’ve got a great runway and a community that takes really good care of the airmen,” Pompeo said.

Base is already key to economy

While the effect of future tanker deployment is hard to measure right now, the base’s current impact on the area is fairly well documented.

The base is home to three substantial units, the 22nd Air Refueling Wing, the Air Reserve’s 931st Air Refueling Group and the 184th Intelligence Wing of the Air National Guard.

In a 2009 study, based on 2006 data, Wichita State University economists found that individuals employed at the base earned almost $230 million in wages, plus about $100 million in compensation to military retirees who live in the area.

The military is considered a “base industry” for the local economy, much like manufacturing. Those types of industries bring new dollars into the community, rather than circulating money that is already here, said Jeremy Hill, director of the Center for Economic Development and Business Research at WSU.

In addition to direct employment, the base accounted for about $940 million in procurement contracts in the Wichita area.

“Those contracts heavily fund several of our aviation companies,” Hill said.

As those dollars moved through the local economy, the center estimated that they generated a total of about $1.8 billion in economic activity.

Local and state government also have benefitted. The WSU study estimated that base activity generated a net $9.5 million in tax benefits to Sedgwick County and its cities, plus $42 million for the state.

‘A very big deal’

The numbers have likely grown, as the base has expanded substantially since the study was done.

In 2006, there were about 2,500 active-duty personnel and 1,500 reserves and National Guard at the base.

Now, there are approximately 3,000 active-duty and 1,900 Reserve and Guard personnel, according to the base public affairs offices.

Overall, about 17,000 people are directly involved in the base, including active duty Air Force, reservists, National Guard, civilian employees, retirees and dependants, officials said.

Hill said the decision on tankers is important not only because it would expand what’s going on at the base now, it would also assure its continuation well into the future.

“I think this is a very big deal,” Hill said. “And I think our (federal) legislators are taking a very positive, active role where they should be.”

The lawmakers say they are confident that McConnell will have the inside track as long as the Air Force sticks to military priorities when selecting the base for the new tankers.

In their letter to Donley, the lawmakers said their staff had met with Kathleen Ferguson, deputy assistant secretary of the Air Force for installations, and been assured the criteria for the decision “will focus on the day-to-day, long-term missions rather than allowing global events or administration priorities to influence the scoring.”

“We believe that McConnell AFB will score extremely well as compared to other bases if (the criteria are) properly applied,” the letter continued.

Lawmakers said in addition to geography, some of the factors weighing in McConnell’s favor include that it is already the nation’s biggest tanker base with a skilled workforce on site and that it has the runway, aprons and hangar space to accommodate the additional planes.

Roberts said he’s not even contemplating the possibility that McConnell won’t be selected as base for the new planes.

“We’ll cross that runway when we come to it,” he said.

Reach Dion Lefler at 316-268-6527.

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