Fairchild passed over as a location for next round of new air-refueling tankers
On the day a public meeting was scheduled in Spokane to talk about Fairchild Air Force Base’s ability to host next-generation aerial refueling tankers, the Air Force said a New Jersey base got the nod instead.
And a base in California is next in line after that.
The announcement that Joint Base Maguire-Dix-Lakehurst in New Jersey, and Travis Air Force Base in California, are the “preferred locations” for the second and third round of KC-46A tankers angered Washington’s congressional delegation.
“I’m outraged at the manner in which this process was run and I do not consider this case closed,” Sen. Patty Murray said in a statement.
Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, whose 5th Congressional District is home to Fairchild and its 6,000 jobs, said: “I am disappointed that Fairchild was not selected to receive these new tankers, and I continue to have questions about whether changes to the basing process unfairly disadvantaged Fairchild.”
The first 33 tankers are going to McConnell Air Force Base in Kansas, with the first ones set to arrive late this year. Fairchild was listed as the “reasonable alternative” to McConnell when that decision was made in 2013, leading locals to hope Fairchild would be second in line for more of the new tankers, called Pegasus.
Like that first go-round, Fairchild was once again listed as a “reasonable alternative.” A final decision will come later this year, but the West Plains base would only get the new tankers if one of the preferred bases is disqualified during the environmental impact analysis currently being conducted.
“Great news for #NJ! We won the battle & @jointbasemdl will host next gen KC-46 air refuel tankers,” Sen. Bob Mendendez, D.N.J., tweeted Thursday morning after Air Force officials notified congressional leaders that facility is their top choice for the second active-duty wing of the new tankers.
In the formal announcement, the Air Force said 24 of the new tankers will be sent to each of the preferred bases, replacing KC-10 Extender tankers that are stationed at the two bases. They “meet all operational mission requirements at the best value for the Air Force and the American taxpayer,” Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James said of the New Jersey and California bases.
It was one of three “basing” decisions for new planes the Air Force announced on the day James stepped down from the cabinet post.
The decision leaves Fairchild with the KC-135 tankers built in the 1950s and 1960s for the foreseeable future. That was the plane the Air Force said it wanted to replace when Congress approved a contract for 100 KC-46As after a lengthy political battle. The Air Force expects to keep at least some KC-135s in service through 2040.
The KC-10 Extender is a newer, larger tanker built in the 1970s and 1980s on the same airframe as the DC-10 commercial jetliner. But after the KC-46A was approved, the Air Force said it might use some of the new tankers to replace the Extenders because they are expensive to operate.
That decision opened up the competition for the second group of tankers to many more bases, and drew the ire of Sen. Murray, D-Wash.
The New Jersey base reportedly got a higher score than Fairchild in the Air Force’s assessment of the five facilities it was studying for the next operating base. But according to some reports, Travis scored lower than Fairchild, yet was also selected for a KC-46A base.
The Air Force went forward with its plan to hold an Environmental Impact Statement scoping session in Spokane on Thursday, but sources said that would only help Fairchild’s chances if the EIS process for all the bases under consideration turns up something that makes the Pentagon change its mind about Maguire-Dix-Lakehurst or Travis.
Murray, who had pushed unsuccessfully for Fairchild to be the first home for the new plane, and then to be the second main operating base, blasted the decision as violating a law she sponsored requiring the base selection process to be transparent.
“As I’ve said repeatedly, if the Air Force is truly committed to its plan to buy the full number of tankers, rebalance to Asia, and support operations around the world, Fairchild Air Force Base is the absolute best location (for the new base),” she said in a statement released by her staff. “I will pursue all avenues to ensure the Air Force explains every turn that led us to this decision.”
Local government and business leaders had hoped that sending the new tankers to Fairchild would keep it off any future list for closure or downsizing if the military is ordered to reduce the number of bases. There is no current plan for a Base Realignment and Closure process, often known by its initials, BRAC.
McMorris Rodgers said the failure to be selected as a top choice for the new KC-46A does not jeopardize Fairchild’s future and predicted the state’s entire delegation would work to bring more missions to the base.
“I’ve met personally with numerous Air Force leaders and they have assured me that Fairchild is positioned to be a preeminent aerial refueling tanker base well into the future because of its strategic location, infrastructure and capacity, strong community support, and years of mission experience,” she said in a statement released Thursday morning. “I am going to hold them to their word and ensure that Fairchild retains and expands its critical role in assuring the Air Force’s global mobility and reach.”
Officials from Greater Spokane Inc., who lobbied for Fairchild to get the new tankers when the first base was selected as well as the latest round, said they, too, were disappointed by the announcement. But GSI chief executive officer Todd Mielke suggested there may be a silver lining, with the Air Force reassigning some KC-135 tankers to Fairchild from other bases.
“Fairchild could see its assignment of KC-135 aircraft increase from 35 to 60 aircraft, with supporting crews and facilities, making it one of the largest tanker bases in the nation,” Mielke said in a news release from the organization.
That would be roughly equal to the number of tankers Fairchild had in the mid-1990s, after the Air Force removed the B-52 bombers from the base. For several years, Fairchild was the nation’s largest refueling base until some of those planes were stationed elsewhere.
A spokeswoman for Gov. Jay Inslee called the decision disappointing and said Fairchild has the capacity to be assigned more planes.
“We expect further discussions with senior leadership about the critical role that Fairchild will play” in Air Force plans to modernize its tanker fleet, Jaime Smith said.