Wichita — McConnell Air Force Base was selected Wednesday as the main operating site for the Air Force’s new KC-46A air refueling tanker, making Wichita home to the U.S. military’s largest tanker base in the world.
Members of Kansas’ congressional delegation issued a joint statement announcing the Air Force decision. The aircraft will replace the aging KC-135 fleet flown by crews for nearly 60 years.
The Air Force will base 36 of the new aircraft at McConnell starting in 2016. It also will be investing $192 million in upgrades to the base, the delegation said.
McConnell was chosen over bases in North Dakota, Oklahoma and Washington.
“Wichita is the air tanker capital of the world now and it will be in the future,” Republican Sen. Jerry Moran said. “Today’s decision further establishes Kansas as the home of the nation’s soldiers and airmen.”
The investment of additional military construction dollars would also help protect McConnell against any action under future Base Realignment and Closure activities, he said.
“We’ve been through transitions where we flew lots of other aircraft before we flew tankers, and we have always worried that someday there would be the decision that McConnell would be no more or that it would be in a greatly diminished role,” U.S. Rep. Mike Pompeo told reporters. “What I think this says is the Air Force believes this is a strategic jewel in their arsenal. It’s a capacity they need and are going to need for decades to come.”
The decision is not only great news for Wichita, its neighboring communities and Kansas, but also for the Air Force and the nation’s national security, Pompeo said.
Republican Sen. Pat Roberts said in a phone interview that the events leading up to the decision to base the new tankers in Kansas have their roots in the 1991 tornado that devastated McConnell and led to a complete makeover. That reconstruction effort gave McConnell a solid platform and a “leg up” on such competitions.
The decision also fulfills a promise made by an Air Force general when in a “highly political” move, Roberts said, the bombers were pulled out of McConnell and relocated to South Dakota.
“I think it went the right way and I just feel very gratified that finally promises made to me — the largest tanker base in the world — and promises kept,” Roberts said. “They pulled out the bomber and we got the tanker instead.”
Roberts said the tankers give the United States military access to anywhere in the world when tensions flare up. The new planes would replace the aging tanker fleet, about a third of which is on the ground getting repaired at any time.
“This has been a long time coming, desperately needed, but this really makes McConnell,” Roberts said.
He also credited the support of the people of Wichita, who did not give up on the tanker.
McConnell supports more than 17,000 people, both military and civilian, with an economic impact of $619 million to the city. The number of people at the base is expected to stay about the same for now, but it could increase as the planes arrive, Roberts said.
Gov. Sam Brownback called the decision good for Kansas and a credit to the men and women of McConnell.
“Although there is more work ahead, we are very grateful for this reaffirmation by the Air Force of the critical role which McConnell plays in meeting its world-wide requirements,” Brownback said in a new release.
In a separate competition to host 12 tankers, Forbes Field in Topeka lost out to Pease Air Force Base in New Hampshire, but the delegation said the Topeka base could be considered for future refueling assignments.
Altus Air Force Base in southwestern Oklahoma won the competition to host the tanker flight training school.
While McConnell was selected the “preferred alternate” to operate the tanker fleet, the process still requires doing an environmental impact statement and subsequent public comment period before the decision is finalized.