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How McConnell shapes up against competing bases in tanker battle

The Pentagon will tell you communities with Air Force bases on the short list to get the new tankers shouldn’t feel like they’re competing against one another.

But with those bases creating hundreds of millions of dollars in economic impact and the closing or realignment of bases always on the horizon, it’s not surprising some communities feel differently. Landing the new tanker would make a base’s future stable for decades.

Wichita’s McConnell Air Force Base is on the final list of bases being considered to receive the new KC-46A tanker in 2016.

“Definitely it’s a competition for us,” said Pat Gallagher, government relations manager for the Wichita Metro Chamber of Commerce and the group’s liaison with McConnell. “That’s the way we look at it. There’s a gazillion reasons and one why we should win.”

The folks in Spokane, Wash., feel the same way about nearby Fairchild Air Base. Fairchild and McConnell join bases in Grand Forks, N.D., and Altus, Okla., as the finalists to be the main active-duty operating base, which will receive 36 new tankers.

“We describe it as we’re in the Final Four,” said Kevin Dudley, a spokesman for Greater Spokane Inc., a business development group. “We want to be champions.”

From an initial list of 54 bases, the Air Force earlier this month named nine 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 an operating base led by an Air National Guard unit — will be selected in late spring or early summer to receive tankers.

McConnell and Altus are the only two finalists to house the formal training unit, which will receive eight new tankers. A base can be selected for only one category.

Topeka’s Forbes Field is one of five finalists in the Guard category, which will receive 12 KC-46 tankers in 2018.

The Air Force will hold another round of competition in a couple of years and eventually is expected to have 10 bases with the new tankers. Tankers have been used for more than five decades to do in-flight refueling, extending the global reach of U.S. aircraft.

Clearly the prime prize in this first assignment is selection as the main active-duty base. But community leaders want any slice of the tanker pie.

“It’s a definite plum,” said Marv Duncan, a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel who is Sedgwick County’s lobbyist and a member of the chamber’s Tanker Task Force.

Nonetheless, the Pentagon prefers communities not get too competitive. That’s one reason the Air Force refused to release the results of a point system used to help select the nine finalists.

“The basing process is not intended to promote an environment in which local communities around our installations are vying for new missions or competing against other communities for new missions,” Pentagon spokeswoman Ann Stefanek wrote in an e-mail.

Community leaders won’t be allowed to have contact with Air Force brass and defense department officials when they do on-site inspections of the bases over the next few months. They are due to visit McConnell in March.

But that doesn’t keep civic leaders from campaigning away from the base.

Spokane’s Fairchild First members soon will go to Washington to continue their lobbying efforts. They will be joined by some of Washington’s congressional delegation, including U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, a Seattle-area Democrat who chairs the Senate Budget Committee.

Gallagher said there’s a “great likelihood” that Wichita’s Tanker Task Force members will also journey to Washington to make their case for McConnell again. The task force went to the nation’s capital in August, followed by a group in September that included Mayor Carl Brewer, Sedgwick County Manager William Buchanan and Kansas Lt. Gov. Jeff Colyer.

Politicians are speaking up.

Murray said Fairchild is “well positioned to achieve global-level reach to the emerging Asia-Pacific Theater.”

U.S. Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., called McConnell the “premier ‘super tanker’ base in the nation.” U.S. Rep. Mike Pompeo, R-Wichita, said McConnell is the “perfect fit” for the new tankers.

The primary role of a senator or representative in the selection process now is to be a watchdog and ensure bases are treated fairly, said U.S. Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan.

“We’re part cheerleader, part CPA and part inspector general in demanding oversight and transparency,” Roberts said. “This isn’t a situation where we can tell the Air Force to do anything.”

McConnell and Fairchild are already serving as prime tanker bases. McConnell has 63 of the KC-135 tankers and Fairchild has about 30.

Altus serves as a leading training base for flight crews of the KC-135s and the C-17 Globemaster IIIs, a large transport aircraft. The base has a combined total of about 40 of the two planes.

Grand Forks became a tanker base in 1993, but was assigned another mission during the 2005 base realignment and closure process. The last of Grand Forks’ tankers, on loan from McConnell, was transferred back to the Wichita base in late 2010.

In Grand Forks, chamber president and CEO Barry Wilfhart said, “The Air Force has done a good job of making the process very analytical and looking at it from a points system. They’ve done their best to de-politicize the process.”

The point system for base assignments began four years ago after complaints arose that the military was making crucial decisions without enough detailed information, military observers said.

But the point system – 100 points covering everything from costs for added construction and capacity to environmental issues and the mission – was used as only part of the process to determine the nine finalists. Everything now will depend on the on-site inspections.

Holly Urbanski, president of the Altus chamber, said, “I’m not sure this is a competition between communities. We just want to maintain a viable military installation in southwest Oklahoma.”

Altus knows what it’s like to lose a base.

The town of 19,000 about 130 miles southwest of Oklahoma City saw its base established during World War II and then closed after the war. It was reactivated in 1953.

“Those years when it was closed certainly showed our people the impact the base has on our community,” said Joe Leverett, a physician who heads up the Altus Military Affairs Committee. “When it was reactivated, it was a very bright day.”

Altus folks have traveled annually for 50 years to Washington, D.C., to put on a quail breakfast for about 300 military and congressional leaders.

“We used to shoot the quail, freeze them and take them up there,” Leverett said. “But it’s hard to get frozen quail through airport security, so we get the quail up there now.

“It’s they important they know what we can do. Altus has air space, ramp space and a community that loves the Air Force.”

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