Pompeo: Environmental study OKs McConnell to receive new tankers

The KC-46A will look similar to this Italian refueling tanker built from a Boeing 767.
The KC-46A will look similar to this Italian refueling tanker built from a Boeing 767. Courtesy

McConnell Air Force Base has passed its environmental impact study, clearing the way for it to start receiving the new refueling tankers in 2016, U.S. Rep Mike Pompeo said Wednesday.

The Wichita Republican said he was notified of the decision by the Air Force. But the Air Force isn’t expected to make it official for two or three months, he said.

“It’s just processing by the Air Force,” Pompeo told The Eagle. “I’m always cautious saying something is done, but a purely administrative process is all that remains.

“It’s literally done.”

Ann Stefanek, an Air Force spokeswoman, would only say, “We’re still on track for a spring announcement.”

Bids already have been taken for $219 million in construction to prepare McConnell for the arrival of the KC-46A tankers. But contracts can’t be signed or construction started until the official decision on the study is made public.

When the Air Force selected McConnell last May to become the first main active-duty base to receive the new tankers, it did so pending the outcome of the environmental study.

Federal law requires the study be done before a new aircraft is assigned to a base. It was expected that McConnell would pass the environmental study since it has been home to the KC-135 tankers for decades.

Pompeo said the decision also reduces the ability of the congressional delegation from Washington state to block the move, which drew heated competition. That delegation had continued to lobby to get the Air Force to change its mind and place the tankers at Fairchild Air Force Base in Spokane, Wash.

Fairchild and McConnell were among the four finalists named by the Air Force in January 2013 to receive the tankers as the main active-duty base in the first round of assignments.

There will be additional assignments of the KC-46A tankers to other bases in a couple of years, but military and political leaders have said it’s important for a base to get in on the first round to establish priority at a time base closures are on the table.

Boeing has a $35 billion contract to build 179 tankers by 2027. Concerns raised a few months ago that Boeing’s production schedule was running behind have subsided, Pompeo said.

McConnell was tapped to receive 36 of the new tankers, which eventually will replace the 1950s-era KC-135 tankers. While McConnell will start receiving tankers in 2016, delivery of its full allotment will trickle into the base over several years because Boeing will build only 12 to 18 each year.

“We’ll have new tankers in the air before too long,” Pompeo said.

Some of the new tankers will go to two other bases selected for separate categories. For example, Altus Air Force Base in Oklahoma was picked as the formal training base for the KC-46A and will eventually get eight tankers.

Two public hearings were held last year in Wichita in preparation for completing the environmental impact study. McConnell received strong support from the community during those hearings.

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