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McConnell awaiting decision on home for Air Force tankers

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Friday, Oct. 19, 2012, at 11:28 p.m.
  • Updated Thursday, May 23, 2013, at 8:37 a.m.

The nine Air Force base finalists in the first competition for the new tankers apparently are known behind closed doors at the Pentagon, but the rest of us may have to wait until almost Christmas for the list of names.

U.S. Rep. Mike Pompeo said he’s confident Wichita’s McConnell Air Force Base will be one of the three finalists among bases with active units to be selected as a home for the new KC-46A tankers.

“I’ve been told the decision is done,” he told The Eagle this week, “but they’re not going to announce it until after the election.”

That time frame could range anywhere from late November until just before Christmas.

McConnell is the world’s largest tanker base with 63 of the venerable KC-135R models, which will be phased out by the 179 new tankers under a contract to be built by Boeing for $35 billion.

The before-Christmas cut will select nine bases – three bases each from three different groups. The groupings are a main training base led by active duty units, an operating base with an Air National Guard unit that does refueling and an active base for training.

With the 22nd Air Refueling Wing as its active unit, McConnell will be considered for two out of the three categories. Kansas Air National Guard’s unit at McConnell is the 184th Intelligence Wing.

Next summer, the Air Force is expected to name the three bases – one from each category – to serve as home for the new tankers. The Air Force, however, will hold another round of competition in a couple of years and will eventually have about 10 bases with the new tankers as more are produced.

But being selected as a base for the new tanker in this first competition is critical because base closings are expected to come. The Air Force’s inventory of aircraft has dropped about 500 since 2005, leaving an excess in base infrastructure, Air Force officials have said.

“If you get the KC-46 now,” Pompeo said, “you’re protecting (your base) for a generation.”

Congressional delegations across the country are pressing hard to make sure their bases are selected in the high-stakes competition. McConnell’s economic impact on the Wichita area is more than $550 million annually.

The fight for McConnell is nothing new. The community and politicians have rallied to support McConnell during earlier discussions of defense cuts.

From a list of 54 bases, McConnell’s chief competition in the active base category comes from Washington state’s Fairchild, Tampa’s McDill and New Jersey’s McGuire. In the training group, McConnell will compete with Altus, Okla., and bases in North Dakota.

“I spent a lot of time making sure the Air Force understood how important McConnell is to them,” said Pompeo, a Republican from Wichita who is seeking re-election after serving his first term in Congress. “It’s important to national security and a good fit for them.”

One of McConnell’s biggest attractions is its central location in the country. It also is home for the Air Force Reserve’s 931st Air Refueling Group, meeting one of the Air Force’s criteria of having an associate unit on base that does refueling.

One of the 22nd’s squadrons was recently named the Air Force’s top refueling squadron for 2011 after flying about 2,000 combat missions and delivering 84 million pounds of fuel. The 22nd also set an Air Force record last year with 46,000 flying hours.

McConnell hopes to get 24 of the new tankers and keep 48 of the old ones. It’s the only base that has the space to handle that many tankers, Pompeo’s office said.

The new tankers are scheduled to be sent to the active and training bases in 2016 and to the base with a Guard unit in 2017.

Reach Rick Plumlee at 316-268-6660 or at rplumlee@wichitaeagle.com.

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