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McConnell soon to find out status as possible home for Air Force tanker program

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Friday, Dec. 28, 2012, at 6:40 p.m.
  • Updated Sunday, Nov. 10, 2013, at 1:32 p.m.

McConnell Air Force Base should know within the next two weeks whether it has been selected as one of the finalists in the first competition to serve as home for the new refueling tankers.

That announcement already has been delayed twice. A Pentagon spokeswoman would only confirm Friday that there had been another delay and declined to provider further details.

But the legislative director for U.S. Rep. Mike Pompeo, R-Wichita, said the announcement should be revealed in the next week or two. The decision already has been made, Jim Richardson said, but it has been kept secret by the Pentagon.

“We’ve even been told that they have already made briefing slides (on the selected bases) to show Congress,” he said.

The announcement was first expected in September, and then pushed back until after the elections to mid-December. The latest delay was because the Pentagon – and the Air Force, in particular – wanted to wait until the National Defense Authorization Act was passed before it made any more basing decisions, Richardson said.

The act, which is the annual defense policy bill, cleared its final Congressional hurdle earlier this week and now only needs President Obama’s signature. He is expected to sign it within a few days.

That should be the final obstacle to bringing the tanker decision out from behind the Pentagon’s closed doors. Richardson said McConnell is in a “strong spot” to make the first round of finalists to be assigned some of the new KC-46A tankers.

McConnell is the world’s largest tanker base with 63 of the KC-135R models, which average 50 years old. They will be phased out by 179 new tankers to be built by Boeing as part of a $35 billion contract.

McConnell, which has a $550 million economic impact annually on the Wichita area, is among 54 bases that the Air Force considered.

Making the cut

The first cut will select six to 12 bases – two to four bases each from three different categories – to serve as home for the new tankers. The groupings are a main training base led by an active duty unit, an active base for training and an operating base with an Air National Guard unit that does refueling.

Most likely three bases will be selected for each category, Richardson said.

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

Regardless, the Air Force will select three bases – one from each category – sometime in the spring. The Air Force 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.

The Air Force’s criteria for selecting a tanker base includes hangar, runway and ramp space, proximity to aircraft that will need refueling, environmental requirements and costs.

McConnell hopes to get 36 new tankers and keep as many of the old tankers as it can. It has the largest ramp space of all the bases and is the only one that can handle 60 tankers, Richardson said.

McConnell is also home for the reserve’s 931st Refueling Group, meeting one the Air Force’s criteria of having an associate unit on base that does refueling.

Base security

Landing the tankers is a prize for any base. With base closings expected over the next five years, serving as a home for the tankers would insure a base’s security for decades to come, Richardson said.

“If we get the tanker, that would really set McConnell apart,” he added. “There would be no reason for the Air Force to turn around and make cuts to McConnell.”

With so much uncertainty – especially with the $500 billion in automatic defense cuts that are set to take effect Tuesday if the president and Congress can’t agree on how to reduce the deficit – it would also be best if McConnell is among the first three bases selected and not wait until the number is expanded later.

“You never know how many (tankers) they will make,” Richardson said. “You never now how long it will take to make the 179. There are so many uncertainties.”

The cuts, known as sequestration, would include slicing nearly $5 billion from the Air Force’s procurement fund, the Office of Management and Budget said in September. That could force the Air Force to renegotiate its contract with Boeing for the new tanker, Maj. Gen. John Thompson, the KC-46A program director, said in September.

“I don’t want to break my contract,” Thompson said, “and I’m fearful sequestration may force me to do that. If I have to break my fixed-price contract, then I stand the potential to lose out on some of the great things that we put in this vehicle up front.”

Contributing: Associated Press

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

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