Wednesday was a banner day for Wichita and for all of Kansas, courtesy of news that the U.S. Air Force had chosen McConnell Air Force Base as its primary active duty base for a fleet of new KC-46A refueling tankers.
This new generation of tankers, being built by Boeing, will begin arriving in 2016. They will replace the KC-135s, which have been in service for decades. McConnell will receive the first 36 new tankers, with smaller numbers going to other Air Force bases. Not coincidentally, McConnell, which is home to 62 of the older tankers as well as the Air Force’s 22nd Air Refueling Wing and the Air Force Reserve’s 931st Refueling Group, is the largest tanker base in the world.
Its economic impact on Wichita and the state has been estimated at $619 million a year. That’s likely to increase, as President Barack Obama and the Pentagon plan to invest almost $200 million in infrastructure improvements to prepare McConnell for the new aircraft.
Moreover, the selection of McConnell for the new tankers underscores a long-term commitment to the base that can help protect it during future rounds of base realignment.
While McConnell has long been an outstanding military installation, it would be wrong to underestimate the role of Wichita, which as a community has long welcomed and supported Air Force personnel. And, appropriately, the Kansas congressional delegation, whose efforts have led to considerable investments in other military installations in Kansas as well as funding commitments on NBAF, also contributed to McConnell being chosen to house the new tankers. As Sen. Pat Roberts told the Wichita Eagle, “This is about the best day for Wichita. The city deserves tremendous credit for staying right in there and working so hard. This is a great, great victory.”
Although Wichita’s victory is worth celebrating, Topeka and Forbes Air Force Base weren’t so fortunate. As McConnell was being named the main home of the KC-46As, Forbes, a finalist to be the first Air National Guard site to house the new tankers, lost out to Pease Air Force Base in New Hampshire.
That’s disappointing for Forbes and its justifiably proud 190th Air Refueling Wing, but not entirely surprising. As Gov. Sam Brownback pointed out, “Realistically, it was highly unlikely that two bases in the same state would be selected to host the initial round of KC-45 bases.”
Indeed, it’s rare enough — and a testament to the professionalism at both McConnell and Forbes —that two bases in the same state would be finalists for such prizes.