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McConnell Air Force Base, Topeka among finalists for tanker home

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Wednesday, Jan. 9, 2013, at 9:58 a.m.
  • Updated Sunday, Nov. 10, 2013, at 1:32 p.m.

Correction: An earlier version of this story had an incorrect number of bases selected as finalists

Wichita’s McConnell Air Force Base and Topeka’s Forbes Field are among 9 bases selected as finalists to serve as homes for the new tankers.

“It’s a big deal for McConnell,” U.S. Rep. Mike Pompeo, R-Wichita, said Wednesday shortly before the Air Force made the official announcement. “It has ramifications for decades to come for south-central Kansas.

“If you get the tankers, no (base closing) is going to touch you for a long time. That’s a 50-year long commitment.”

McConnell, which has a $550 million annual economic impact on the Wichita area, was one of 54 bases that the Air Force considered in assigning the new KC-46A tankers.

The finalists were divided into three categories of bases, and one from each group will be selected in late spring or early summer to receive the first of the new tankers in 2016.

With the 22nd Air Refueling Wing as its active unit, McConnell was selected as a finalist in two of the three categories – main training base led by an active duty unit and an active base for mobilization.

McConnell is competing with Altus Air Force Base in Oklahoma for the main training base assignment and with Altus, Fairchild in Washington state and Grand Forks Air Force Base in North Dakota in the mobilization category.

Forbes was selected as one five finalists for the operating base with an Air National Guard unit. Also selected in that category were Pease (N.H), Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst (N.J.), Pittsburgh IAP Air Reserve Station (Pa.) and Rickenbacker Air Force Base (Ohio). Forbes is home for the Guard’s Air 190th Air Refueling Wing.

The announcement of base finalists had been delayed twice since it was first expected in September, but Pompeo said after a news conference in Derby that the Air Force should want to stick closer to its schedule because the final selection determines such things as Guard assignments.

Pat Gallagher, government relations manager for the Metro Chamber of Commerce and the group’s liaison to McConnell, said the base’s economic impact on the area continued during the recession because the base kept growing.

Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer described McConnell as a “vital community partner that provides jobs.”

McConnell has about 3,500 active airmen on the base and accounts for about 17,000 family members in the area. More than 600 families of retired and active airmen live in the Derby area alone, Derby Mayor Dion Avello said.

“The big thing about getting the tanker is jobs,” Avello said. “It will ripple through the community.”

McConnell is already the world’s largest tanker base with 63 KC-135R tankers, the models that are at least 50 years old and will be phased out.

Some of what makes it attractive as a base for the new tankers includes that it’s centrally located and has a significant amount of up-to-date infrastructure in place to accommodate tankers, including the most ramp space of any base in the country.

McConnell is also home to the Reserve’s 931st Air Refueling Group, meeting the Air Force’s criteria of having an associate unit on base.

Pompeo noted that the community has responded well to McConnell over the years.

“The community does matter,” he said. “Part of the basing decision is, ‘Does the community love the airmen? Is it a good place for soldiers and airmen to live and raise their families?’ We do really well by that.”

But he also added that if McConnell is selected, “It’s not a Kansas thing, it’s an America thing. It’s a national security thing.”

McConnell would have more tankers if it is chosen as the mobilization base – which will support active missions such as it has done recently in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya – than if it is a picked as a main training base, Pompeo said. The base cannot be selected for both categories.

The Air Force will hold another round of competition in a couple of years and eventually is supposed to have about 10 bases with the new tankers as more are produced. The KC-135R tankers are being phased out by the 179 new tankers to be built by Boeing as part of a $35 billion contract.

But Pompeo indicated he would be surprised if the number of tanker bases reaches 10, noting that seven probably was more likely number.

“What’s the destiny of an Air Force program? It’s late and it’s over budget,” he said, “and there’s no reason to believe this will be any different. These timelines keep slipping.”

That’s why is important that McConnell and Forbes land tankers during this first round of competition. The Air Force has said there’s no guarantee that if a base finishes second in this competition that it will be next in line to get the tankers in assignments two or three years down the road, Pompeo said.

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

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