Archive for Saturday, August 18, 2001

Base fights to keep B-1Bs

Kansas Air National Guard enlists Legislature’s help

August 18, 2001


— McConnell Air Force Base has been "one step from the bone yard" before and has survived.

Now officials of the Kansas Air National Guard is gearing up for one more fight, this time to keep the nine B-1Bs of the 184th Bomb Wing in Wichita.

Maj. Gen. Greg Gardner, the state's adjutant general, told legislators Friday that the policy decision made in the "11th hour" at the Pentagon did not make sense when looking at the base's record of performance and efficiency.

"If the process worked before, why can't it work again?" he said. "There is no business case for what they're doing."

The Pentagon has announced plans to eliminate the B-1Bs in Wichita, using the savings to upgrade its remaining bomber fleet. It has not set any date.

However, the costs don't add up, he said.

Modernizing the 93 B-1Bs would cost $28 million per plane, Gardner said, which is cheaper than $37 million for each B-52 and $98 million for each B-2, based at Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri.

Gardner said Air Force officials have acknowledged the decision to move the bombers is flawed, but he is not optimistic the order will be reversed.

Bernie Koch, Wichita Area Chamber of Commerce spokesman, said 28 of the 66 Air Force bases have lobbyists in Washington. Talks of such representation began several years ago and have intensified.

House Appropriations Chairman Kenny Wilk, R-Lansing, said Wichita officials would be better served by including Topeka, Leavenworth and Junction City cities with military bases in those efforts.

The cost of hiring a lobbyist could be shared and all those cities have significant military interests worth protecting, Wilk said.

Kansas already has powerful advocates in Washington its congressional delegation.

Rep. Todd Tiahrt, whose 4th District includes McConnell, sits on the House Appropriations Committee and is a member of its defense spending subcommittee. And Sen. Pat Roberts and Rep. Jim Ryun are members of the Senate and House Armed Services committees.

McConnell officials are already thinking of the base's future if the B-1Bs do leave.

Col. Ed Flora, commander of the B-1Bs at the base, said the Air Force has been asked to base a unit of F-15E Eagle fighter jets in Wichita.

Flora repeated remarks he made earlier this week that the F-15Es would fit well at McConnell. He cited the jet's need for a weapons systems officer, who sits behind the pilot, skills that would be somewhat similar to those used by B-1B crew members.

"It has a strong future, because it's a relatively new aircraft and the fact that production is still going," Flora said.

There are 217 F-15Es in the Air Force arsenal, all operated by active-duty Air Force units. The plane was first deployed in April 1988. Flora said moving the fighter jet to the Air National Guard would be a means for keeping the trained and experienced pilots within the military.

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