Scott task force is hopeful of getting next round of new planes

News-DemocratJanuary 30, 2014 

Members of the task force set up three months ago to protect and expand Scott Air Force Base's mission said they're optimistic they can convince the Air Force to locate the new KC-46A air tankers to the air base.

The Leadership Council Southwest Illinois is putting its money where its hopes are: It's agreed to spend $300,000 in the coming year to hire the Washington, D.C., public affairs firm of Smith Dawson & Andrews to make its case before key decision-makers.

The council will spend another $100,000 for travel and other related expenses, said Ellen Krohne, the council's executive director and co-chairwoman of the task force to protect Scott.

An undisclosed share of the $300,000 will be paid to two of the firm's consultants: former U.S. Rep. Jerry Costello, D-Belleville; and retired Gen. Duncan McNab, the former commander of USTRANSCOM, which is headquartered at Scott.

Krohne declined to specify exactly what Costello -- who spent his career as a House member helping expand Scott's mission and work force --and McNabb are doing to promote Scott's future or to land a piece of the $52 billion project to replace the Air Force's aging aeriel refueling fleet.

"Yes, they are meeting with decision-makers," she said. "But they are also figuring out what we need to do. So we are hiring them as experts to assist us in how we can continue to keep Scott Air Force Base growing."

Neither Costello nor McNabb could be reached for comment.

A year ago Scott did not make the finalist list of 10 bases for the KC-46A air tanker because the base lacked big enough hangars and fuel pits to accommodate the new aircraft. The selected bases stretch from Washington State to Pennsylvania.

Scott's ommission served as big wake-up call for metro-east leaders, who are determined to protect Scott. With 13,000 civilian and military jobs, Scott is the region's biggest employer and has an estimated $3 billion-per-year impact on the metro St. Louis economy.

U.S. Rep. Bill Enyart, D-Belleville, who last year replaced Costello, and who sits on the House Armed Services Committee, acknowledged there is no money in the Pentagon pipeline for upgrading Scott's infrastructure to accommodate the KC-46A.

"That's certainly something we're working on," Enyart said. "It's a long-term project. We're not going to have an answer to that tomorrow or next week. That is certainly something I've talked to the Air Force about, I've talked to the administration about."

Under Air Force plans, three of the 10 air bases on the KC-46A finalist list will be picked by spring 2014 for the first set of the new air tankers, which are set to debut between 2017 and 2018.

The Air Force plans to roll out 179 KC-46A to 10 air bases -- including two overseas -- during the next 15 years. The planes carry an estimate price tag of $225 million apiece.

One of the three chosen bases will serve as a formal training unit. A second one will serve as a main operating base for active duty units. The third will serve as a main operating base for Air National Guard units.

That roll-out schedule could be in trouble, however.

The Pentagon's operational testing unit issued a report earlier this week predicting the plane's official launch will be delayed by as much as 12 months. On Wednesday, both Boeing -- the plane's builder -- and the Air Force issued statements indicating they were confident Boeing would deliver the first 18 planes by August 2017 as scheduled.

In any event, Scott was not named to the list of 10 airbases set to get the new air tanker, which many metro-east leaders saw as a huge wake-up call.

Getting Scott onto that list, while not impossible, may be very difficult.

Ann Stephanek, the Air Force spokeswoman for the KC-46A program, could not be reached for comment Thursday.

But in an interview a year ago about the system the Air Force used to pick the 10 finalists, Stephanek noted that of the eight candidate bases stateside, five are considered contenders for KC-46As going to Air National Guard units.

After the first Air National Guard base is picked, the remaining four air guard bases "will be considered for the additional locations" Stephanek said.

That doesn't preclude Scott, in theory at least, from future selection rounds, she said.

"A lot of these decisions are years out. Things can change between now and then," she said.

Scott is home to the 126th Air National Guard Refueling Wing, which oversees nine KC-135's, which were built, on average, more than 50 years ago.

Krohne said there is a good chance Scott, despite its shortcomings in infrastructure, could be picked for an upcoming round of KC-46A aircraft to replace the KC-135 tankers.

"I don't think it's a pipe dream," Krohne said. "Obviously they know it's a good location for tankers because we have them now. And so I don't think it's impossible for us to grow that mission."

Krohne declined to specify what specific steps the council and its task force -- known officially as the Defense Assets Retention and Expansion Task Force -- are taking to protect Scott from further program cuts and to bring in new programs and services.

"We're confident that they're working hard and getting the right things done," Krohne said. "But what we're doing to protect our mission is what other people are looking to do to take our mission. We can't let our competitors know what those plays are."

Still, Krohne said she believes the task force assembled to protect and expand Scott "gives us a competitive advantage. No one really knows Scott as well as Jerry Costello and Gen. McNabb. They certainly have a lot of knowledge and are coming up with a good strategy for us."

The KC-46A is designed to fly further and carry heavier payloads than its aging predecessor. While the KC-135 Stratotanker had a top range of 4,000 miles, the KC-46A will be able to cruise nearly 6,400 miles -- an increase of about 60 percent.

The aircraft have an estimated price tag of about $225 million apiece.

John Lengerman, a member of the leadership council task force member to protect Scott, said he felt optimistic about Scott's chances of attracting the KC-46A to Scott eventually because of the intense bond between Scott personnel and the surrounding community.

"I'm totally confident," said Lengerman, the executive director of the Greater Belleville Area Chamber of Commerce.

"With our history of what we've been able to do with the current refueling wing," Lengerman said, "there'd be no reason for us not to be optimistic that we can be a participant in the new plane as well."

Contact reporter Mike Fitzgerald at mfitzgerald@bnd.com or 618-239-2533.

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