Wichita There will be different planes and missions and even a new name, but the 184th Bomb Wing will remain at McConnell Air Force Base which officials say is the most important thing.
The Air Force announced this summer it intended to eliminate the B-1Bs at McConnell, raising questions whether the Kansas Air National Guard's 184th would remain an independent unit.
On Monday, U.S. Sens. Pat Roberts and Sam Brownback along with U.S. Rep. Todd Tiahrt delivered the news at the base the 184th would remain at McConnell and be renamed the 184th Air Refueling Wing. Replacing the 184th's nine B-1Bs will be 10 KC-135R Stratotankers.
Roberts said McConnell eventually will become the world's largest KC-135R supertanker base. He said no date to complete the transition has been set.
"This is a tremendous victory for McConnell, for Wichita, for the Kansas Air National Guard and for our nation's security," Roberts told some 200 cheering members of the 184th, many wearing red ball caps.
He said the loss of a combat mission at any base is cause for concern and disappointment, but added the tanker mission "is critical to the U.S. Air Force, both today and far into the future."
"We believe that Wichita is an excellent location for the world's largest supertanker base, and we believe there is great potential for expansion of the mission in the future," Roberts said.
"Just a week ago, the secretary of defense wanted to shut down the 184th," said Tiahrt, adding the base puts about $250 million a year into the economy.
Brownback said the agreement "provides us some security" at McConnell in any future talks about base closures.
As part of the agreement with the Air Force, Roberts said, the 184th will keep its B-1 engine and avionics repair shop, a Phoenix Raven Security Force Team will be based at McConnell and an information operations unit also will be started.
"We will have no net loss, personnel or jobs. As a matter of fact, we think we will increase jobs," Roberts said of the 1,200-member unit.
Roberts also said McConnell would be considered for the airborne laser, a laser cannon supporters say would shoot down missiles shortly after launch.
Roberts is on the Senate Armed Services Committee; Tiahrt on the defense spending panel of the House Appropriations Committee.
The four-engine KC-135Rs are similar to the Boeing 707. They have bigger engines than other KC-135 versions and provide midair refueling for 20 fighters.
The base already has 58 KC-135Rs, but they belong to the Air Force's 22nd Air Refueling Wing. The guard's 190th Air Refueling Wing at Forbes Field in Topeka has 11 KC-135E tankers.
Gardner said this will be the third changeover in recent years for the 184th, known as the Flying Jayhawks. In 1992, it flew F-16 fighters and then in 1994 it started changing to the B-1Bs.
"Military missions and strategies change over time," Gardner said. "The hardworking members of the Kansas Air National Guard have demonstrated the ability to adjust and get the job done."
Col. Ed Flora, who commands the 184th, said his unit is ready to accept its new role.
"We'll make our way into the future and we'll do it in fine fashion," Flora said.
Aside from McConnell, the Air Force intends to eliminate B-1s based in Georgia and Idaho, using the savings to upgrade its remaining bomber fleet, which will be consolidated in Texas and South Dakota.
Announced without warning to lawmakers who control Pentagon purse strings, the decision to pare the force from 93 to 60 placed top brass under fire on Capitol Hill.
In July, Roberts, Tiahrt and Brownback announced the Air Force would wait at least 16 months to pare the fleet. They were contradicted the next day by Air Force Secretary James Roche.