McConnell Air Force Base to receive new KC-46A tankers

McConnell Air Force Base will serve as home for the new refueling tankers, members of Kansas’ congressional delegation said Wednesday.

In announcing its decision, the Air Force selected the Wichita base to receive 36 new KC-46A tankers in 2016.

The Air Force picked McConnell “because it’s the best place” for the new tankers, U.S. Rep. Mike Pompeo, R-Wichita, told The Eagle.

The decision is significant for McConnell and the Wichita area because it puts the base in position to be a key factor in the Air Force’s plans for decades to come, resulting in hundreds of millions of dollars in economic impact.

U.S. Sen. Jerry Moran said President Obama’s budget for 2014 – which begins on Oct. 1 of this year – has requested $192 million to be spent on constructing infrastructure to prepare the base selected as the main active-duty base for the new tankers. Undoubtedly, some of that work will be done by local contractors.

“This is about the best day for Wichita,” Sen. Pat Roberts said. “The city deserves tremendous credit for staying right in there and working so hard. This is a great, great victory.”

McConnell picked up the lion’s share of the prize in the selection process because it will receive the 36 new tankers as the main active-duty base.

The Wichita base was also a finalist with Altus, Okla., as the formal training base for the KC-46A tanker. But that base will receive only up to eight new tankers. Since McConnell was selected as the main active-duty operating base, Altus will handle the training.

“The choice is exactly what we wanted,” Moran said.

To be selected, McConnell beat out two other bases besides Altus – Grand Forks, N.D., and Fairchild in Spokane, Wash.

McConnell is already the world’s largest tanker base with 62 KC-135s, five-decade-old planes that will be phased out by the new tankers. The base’s annual economic impact on the Wichita area is $619 million.

Moran said he thought McConnell’s central location, successful history of operation and support from the community led to its selection. The base’s tanker crews have flown a record number of hours in support of operations in Afghanistan, Syria and Iraq.

“It’s gone exactly the way you would want it to happen,” Moran said.

McConnell also met one of the Air Force’s criteria by having a support unit on its base that flies tankers. In addition to the active-duty 22nd Air Refueling Wing, the base’s Reserve unit is the 931st Air Refueling Group.

The decision has followed a long selection process, including on-site visits by a team from the Air Force and Department of Defense. A point system was used to narrow the field down to nine from 54 in January.

Boeing has a $35 billion contract to build 179 new tankers.

Another round of base assignment of new tankers is expected to be held in a couple of years. The Air Force has said it hopes to eventually have 10 bases with new tankers.

But it was important that McConnell land the tankers during the first round competition because many of uncertainties about future defense spending.

“It’s terribly important,” Roberts said. “We’re facing sequestration.”

Wednesday’s announcement is the Air Force’s “preferred” selection of bases, but 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 anytime a new plane assignment is made to a base.

Moran said that process is mostly about crossing T’s and dotting I’s.

“They did do a site survey,” he said. “We wouldn’t be in the position we’re in if anybody thought they had a problem.”

Pease Air Force Base in New Hampshire was selected to receive 12 KC-46A tankers in 2018 as the main operating base led by an Air National Guard unit. Topeka’s Forbes Field was one of five finalists for that category.

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