Any whisper of defense cuts can send shivers of concern through the Wichita area. McConnell Air Force Base has more than a $550 million annual economic impact on the community and thousands of families whose lives could be affected by changes.
So it is understandable eyebrows were raised by Congress’ recent request that the Department of Defense find $450 billion in savings over 10 years starting in 2013. The Air Force will share in those proposed cuts.
No one is suggesting those reductions mean there will be base closings. In fact, no one is suggesting anything. Details aren’t available and probably won’t be until mid-January in advance of President Obama presenting his budget in February.
“It’s way too early to tell what will happen,” said Ann Stefanek, a Pentagon spokeswoman for the Air Force. “There will be consequences of the cuts, but they haven’t been identified.”
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McConnell appears to be in a good position to weather cuts. For starters, it is the world’s largest tanker base and has set Air Force records for flying hours each of the past three years. It is also a total force base, meaning it has active duty, reserve and National Guard components — the 22nd Air Refueling Wing, the reserve’s 931st Air Refueling Group and Kansas Air National Guard’s 184th Intelligence Wing.
McConnell also scores well in working with the community, points that are important when the Air Force is considering changes.
All of that is not to say concern for McConnell should be dismissed.
“There’s always concern for a military base,” said Pat Gallagher, government relations manager for the Wichita Metro Chamber of Commerce and the group’s liaison to McConnell. “We would hope McConnell’s mission is secure, particularly with a new tanker contract. But we don’t know what’s around the corner. It’s better to be prepared.”
Sens. Pat Roberts and Jerry Moran and Rep. Mike Pompeo “have been doing a lot of behind-the-scene work” in support of McConnell, she said.
“I don’t have any specific information,” Pompeo said, regarding how proposed cuts might affect McConnell. “I view that as good news.”
Although Pompeo said the defense budget will shrink, he added that he hasn’t seen any action that would diminish McConnell’s growth. And although the Iraq War has ended, he noted the demand for air refueling will remain high because U.S. forces still operate in remote parts of an unstable world.
“McConnell’s mission and excellent performance put it in a good place,” Pompeo said. “We should be all right.”
“There is no doubt that defense cuts will be made,” he said. “But it is imperative that we make cuts with a scalpel and not an axe. With a careful eye, I expect McConnell will continue to serve the Air Force and the people of Wichita without a large sacrifice.”
McConnell officials won’t discuss the topic, noting that any decisions that might affect the base would be made at the Pentagon.
“We do have to help with the burden of some of the reductions,” said Master Sgt. Brian Bahret, a McConnell spokesman for the 22nd. “We have to do our fair share.”
McConnell has already had a taste.
In a belt-tightening move unrelated to the proposed $450 billion cut, last month U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta ordered a downsizing of civilian jobs at military bases. That resulted in the Air Force losing about 9,000 civilian positions, including 31 at McConnell. Some of those 31 spots were already vacant and many of the rest will go away by attrition, Bahret said.
Another round of cuts to civilian jobs on bases is coming early next year, including 4,500 for the Air Force. McConnell should learn around mid-January if it will lose any more civilian positions, Stefanek said.
Most of the 31 positions already lost deal with services and civil engineering, Bahret said.
Reaching beyond the base
McConnell has more than 17,000 total personnel, including 7,700 retirees and 3,000 active military. It has a total economic impact of $553.6 million on the area, according to base figures compiled through Sept. 30.
The economic impact ranks in the top 10 among the area’s industry, the chamber’s Gallagher said. But McConnell’s reach goes beyond the base and into the community.
“People at the base take part in charity organizations,” Gallagher said. “They shop here, buy homes here, their kids go to school here. There’s a ripple effect.”
The Air Force looks at how well a base is received in a community when considering changes. All indications are that McConnell is received with open arms.
For example, the cities of Wichita and Derby and Sedgwick County work closely with McConnell when it comes to development and zoning issues around the base, said Scott Knebel, who works in the advance planning division for the Metropolitan Area Planning Commission.
The chamber also has a Friends of McConnell organization, which helps provide money for such events as the air show and helps support McConnell families. The group is also helping bring Tops in Blue, an Air Force entertainment group, to Wichita’s Century II for a 7 p.m. performance Jan. 4.
McConnell folks apparently think enough of Wichita that many stick around after they leave the service. More than 7,600 Air Force retirees are listed by McConnell as living in the area, including some who have returned after being transferred elsewhere. Access to some medical care at the base is a big draw.
A reasonable cost of living is another attraction. Buying a house close to some bases, such as those in California or Andrews in Washington, D.C., isn’t possible for many young Air Force families, said Allison Moeding, Derby’s economic development director.
“We hear often that people come to McConnell, and they’re not sure they’re going to like it here,” Moeding said. “Then once they leave here they decide they want to come back to this area.”
The community and politicians have rallied to support McConnell during earlier discussions of defense cuts.
In 2003, Wichita, Derby, Sedgwick County, the Wichita Area Chamber of Commerce and others formed the Grow McConnell Coalition during a base realignment and closure process known as BRAC. Kansas politicians pushed to increase McConnell’s refueling tankers.
Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole helped beef up McConnell with a B-1 bomber wing during the 1995 base closings. In 1991, after a tornado hit McConnell, Dole met with Pentagon officials, then escorted them to Wichita, where they publicly pledged to rebuild the base.
Way of the future
McConnell’s mission and how well it carries that out is probably the most critical factor in how it will be treated when cuts are made.
The 184th officially switched from a flying mission to an intelligence role in 2006. It is one of only three Air National Guard units in the country that has folks sitting behind computers grabbing information fed from unmanned aircraft flying over such hot spots as Afghanistan.
Since 1994, McConnell has been primarily the home of air refueling tankers, the KC-135. The active-duty 22nd works with the reserve’s 931st in keeping the base’s 63 tankers busy. Nearly 25 percent of the tanker flights out of McConnell are handled by a combination of reserve and active duty crews.
That kind of effort gets the most mileage out of the tankers. From 2009 through 2011, McConnell’s KC-135s have averaged nearly 40,000 flying hours annually. The 43,000 flying hours the base’s tankers have logged this year account for 43 percent of the total hours flown by all the Air Force’s tankers and are 10,200 hours more than the second leading base.
“In the Air Force’s eyes, this is the way of the future,” Bahret said of the collaboration between active and reserve units. “You have to do this to be marketable.”
One of the 22nd’s squadrons, the 349th, was cited as the Air Force’s best squadron for 2008 and 2010 for such achievements as number of combat missions, deployments and amount of fuel delivered.
The Air Force also has thought enough of McConnell that it has increased its number of tankers over the years. Plus, the base received $800,000 in federal stimulus money in recent years to upgrade the base’s facilities.
But tankers have plenty of suitors. Politicians in the state of Washington have already launched a campaign to bring the next generation of tankers, the KC-46A, to Fairchild Air Force Base in Spokane. Boeing is expected to deliver the first 18 combat-ready tankers by 2017.
“A lot of people in Wichita don’t realize what we have,” Gallagher said.