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Trump’s ouster of Mattis, conflict of interest stall Wichita’s new tanker, sources say

Airmen use KC-46A Pegasus Fuselage Trainer to prepare for the real thing

The KC-46 Pegasus fuselage trainer at McConnell Air Force Base is a replica of the KC-46 main cargo deck from the forward entry door to the aft of the rear entry door. It includes no wings, tail or cockpit.
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The KC-46 Pegasus fuselage trainer at McConnell Air Force Base is a replica of the KC-46 main cargo deck from the forward entry door to the aft of the rear entry door. It includes no wings, tail or cockpit.

President Donald Trump’s decision to replace Defense Secretary James Mattis two months early with a former Boeing executive stalled the delivery of the KC-46 to Wichita in 2018, sources familiar with the situation say.

Last month, a McConnell official said the base hoped the tankers would be there by the end the year. The U.S. Air Force had plans to take its first delivery of the long-delayed aerial refueling tanker from Boeing by the end of 2018, sources told Reuters on Dec. 20. That’s the same day Mattis, who would have had to approve the delivery, announced he was resigning over disagreements with the president.

In Mattis’s resignation letter, he set his last day in the position as Feb. 28, to give time for Trump to pick a replacement and “make sure the Department (of Defense’s) interests are properly articulated and protected.” But three days later, Trump — apparently angry about Mattis’s letter — abruptly ordered him to step down as of Jan. 1.

That put a hold on the delivery of the tankers, sources close to the deal not authorized to speak publicly about it said. Trump’s pick for acting defense secretary, longtime Boeing executive Patrick Shanahan, can’t approve the deal because of his conflict of interest agreement and his past involvement with the company.

It’s now unclear who will authorize the delivery, or when it will happen. The cause for delay was first reported last week by DefenseNews. The Trump administration has not made a statement on the delay, but has said that Shanahan could be acting secretary “for a long time.”

Air Force and Department of Defense officials were not immediately available to answer questions about the delay. Boeing provided a written statement that says the KC-46 remains a top priority and the company “look(s) forward to delivering tanker aircraft in partnership with the Air Force.”

A spokesperson for Sen. Jerry Moran (R-KS), who is on the Senate’s defense appropriations subcommittee, said the hold-up is something Moran is tracking closely.

“It’s something that our office is working to find out,” said Morgan Said, a spokeswoman for Moran. “It’s something we plan to get answers on.”

Wichita’s McConnell Air Force base has been in a two-year wait-and-see period as Boeing, Department of Defense and Air Force leaders work out kinks in the deal and with the aircraft.

The tankers coming to Wichita signal potential for long-term economic benefits to the “Air Capital of the World” and future stability for two of the area’s largest employers — McConnell and Spirit AeroSystems, which manufactures many of the KC-46’s parts. Combined, the two employers have nearly 20,000 full-time employees in Wichita.

McConnell officials would not comment on the most recent delay, but provided the following written statement:

“McConnell Air Force Base has led the charge of strategic air refueling as the “Home of Air Refueling” since our first KC-135 Stratotanker arrived in 1971. Team McConnell stands ready to lead KC-46 operations and integration for the Air Force, and we are excited to bring home the future of air refueling to the great state of Kansas.”

Chosen as the first site to receive the long-delayed new air refueling tankers, McConnell completed $267 million in construction projects in fall 2017 in preparation for the tankers, which are based on Boeing’s 767 commercial passenger jet.

The arrival of the KC-46A to Wichita could bring a sense of closure to a community that has been inextricably linked to the new tankers since 2003 with Boeing’s battle for the tanker contract.

After canceled deals in 2003 and 2008, Boeing finally won the $35 billion contract to build the KC-46 for the Air Force in 2011, when it was still in Wichita. The company claimed a victory would have an economic impact of $388 million a year in Kansas and 7,500 jobs in the state, including at its Wichita plant, which was to be the finishing center to convert the 767 jets to tankers.

Then, less than a year later, Boeing announced it was leaving the city.

The next year, the blow to the city was softened when the Air Force chose McConnell to receive 18 of the tankers in the first round of deliveries and 36 total.

Spirit AeroSystems, a major supplier for Boeing, builds the forward fuselage and several other parts for the tanker. Last month, its president announced it was adding 1,400 more jobs in Wichita this year.

The KC-46A is expected to replace the KC-135 air refueling tankers that dominate McConnell’s two air refueling wings, the 22nd and 931st. It’s expected to be faster, fly farther and be more fuel efficient than the Cold War-era tankers in use today. McConnell’s KC-46A Pegasus Fuselage Training Facility has been in use since May, and will train Air Force personnel from across the country.

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Chance Swaim won the Betty Gage Holland Award in 2018 for distinguished service to honor and protect the integrity of public dialogue on America’s college campuses. He has been a news reporter for The Wichita Eagle since 2018. You can contact him at 316-269-6752 and cswaim@wichitaeagle.com.


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