May 15, 2013

Tanker decision will have ramifications for McConnell, Wichita for decades to come

The wait is almost over.

The wait is almost over.

McConnell Air Force Base should know any day whether it has been selected to serve as a home for the new refueling tankers.

The Air Force said four months ago it expected to announce its decision between mid-May and before June 1, which comes after more than a decade of planning for tanker replacement. With bases creating hundreds of millions of dollars in economic impact and the closing or realignment of bases always on the horizon, the decision has ramifications for decades to come.

“We’re all waiting anxiously,” said Pat Gallagher, government relations manager for the Wichita Metro Chamber of Commerce and the group’s liaison with McConnell. “I think everyone is getting nervous.”

From an initial list of 54 bases, the Air Force in January named McConnell and eight other bases as finalists in the first round of assigning the 179 KC-46A tankers being built by Boeing for $35 billion. One base from each of three categories – main operating and training bases led by active-duty units and a main operating base led by an Air National Guard unit – will be selected.

McConnell is on the short list in two of the three categories.

The Wichita base is among four finalists to receive 36 new tankers as the main active-duty operating base, joining Altus, Okla.; Grand Forks, N.D.; and Fairchild in Spokane, Wash. McConnell and Altus are the only two still being considered to receive up to eight new tankers as the formal training base.

No base will be picked for both categories.

Topeka’s Forbes Field is among five finalists for the guard-led main operating base.

The decision has been a closely guarded secret, especially for loose-lipped Washington, D.C.

“We haven’t heard any leaks from anywhere,” Gallagher said. “We’re hoping for the best.”

No doubt because McConnell is vital for the area. It has an annual economic impact of $619 million and employs nearly 3,500 airmen and civilians.

McConnell is already the world’s largest tanker base with 62 KC-135s, the 50-year-old planes that will be phased out by new tankers.

Factors that make McConnell attractive for the KC-46 include its central location and a significant amount of up-to-date infrastructure, including the most ramp space of any base in the country.

Political and civic leaders in south-central Kansas also have been reminding Air Force brass that by selecting McConnell for a main operating base, the Air Force would pick up a reserve tanker refueling unit.

The base’s active-duty unit (22nd Air Refueling Wing) and reserve unit (931st Air Refueling Group) fly tankers. McConnell’s guard unit is an intelligence-gathering unit and does not fly tankers.

They also note that if Fairchild is selected over McConnell, it would mean the guard would have two bases with new tankers.

Fairchild has a guard unit designated for tankers in addition to its active unit, the 92nd Air Refueling Wing.

Fairchild currently has about 30 KC-135 tankers, which it began housing in 1971. Grand Forks, which serves as home to the Global Hawk drone, hasn’t had tankers since 2005.

Altus’ primary mission is training flight crews for KC-135 tankers and the C-17 transport. It has about 40 of both planes.

In Spokane, some political wrangling is taking place over the Spokane Tribe’s request to build a casino, resort and retail development near Fairchild. U.S. Rep Cathy McMorris Rodgers said in a letter to the Bureau of Indian Affairs that the proposal would be a “clear encroachment” on the base.

The concern is about safety issues, in part because glaring lights from the casino would affect a pilot’s view during night flights. The tribe, however, challenges the contention that the proposed casino would be directly under the bulk of training flights, Spokane’s Spokesman Review reported.

It’s not clear whether the proposed casino would be a deterrent to the Air Force selecting Fairchild.

A point system was used to select the nine finalists in an attempt to make base assignments more objective. The system was started four years ago after complaints arose that the military was making crucial decisions without enough detailed information, military observers said.

Air Force and defense department officials visited the finalists on a fact-checking mission to get a first-hand look at the bases’ infrastructures. Air Force Secretary Michael Donley will make the final decision.

Even after the upcoming decision is announced, some waiting remains.

Although the upcoming announcement will be the Air Force’s “preferred” bases for the new tanker, the decision won’t be final until an environmental impact statement is completed in the spring of 2014. Federal law requires the statement be completed any time a new plane assignment is made to a base.

The new tankers won’t arrive at the main operating and training bases until 2016 and the guard-led base in 2018.

This isn’t the last chance for bases to get the KC-46A. The Air Force is expected to hold another round of competition in a couple of years and is expected to have 10 bases with the new tankers.

But political and military observers say it’s best if bases can get in on the first wave of assignments because too many uncertainties lurk ahead, including cuts in defense spending and an iffy Boeing production plan.

Landing the new tankers now also assures a base that it will be a vital part of the Air Force’s plans for the next 50 years, observers have said.

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