Metro-east leaders launch charm offensive to land KC-46A air tankers

News-DemocratMarch 15, 2014 

— Pegasus, the newly minted name for the Air Force's next generation air refueling tanker, the Boeing KC-46A, was the winged stallion of Greek myth.

From Mount Olympus, the creature hurled thunder and lightning.

Metro-east leaders are praying that in a few years the lighting and thunder of the Air Force Pegasus will strike Scott Air Force Base, showering the region with the decades-long economic boost certain to flow from a fresh squadron of KC-46As, replacing the nine aging Air National Guard KC-135 Stratotankers now based there.

But luring the KC-46A, a $52 billion program that is a top Air Force priority, to Scott will be challenging.

Scott was left off the list the Air Force released last year of five candidate Air National Guard bases eligible for the first of complement of KC-46As when they roll out in 2018.

The preferred location for the first Air National Guard KC-46As is Pease Air Guard Station, N.H., with alternative bases in Kansas, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Ohio.

Undaunted, metro-east lawmakers, businesspeople and elected officials are preparing to launch the first phase of a "charm offensive." Its goal is to persuade top Air Force leaders to give Scott a second look when considering the next round of homes for Pegasus.

Toward this end, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh visits Scott this Friday to meet base and community leaders at the invitation of U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Illinois.

Durbin, the chairman of the powerful Senate Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, emphasized that landing the new KC-46A at Scott is a top priority.

"The commitment for these tankers is an important part of Scott's future," Durbin said. "We want to be there to be part of it. The KC-46A is part of Scott's mission for years to come."

One of the reasons Scott was passed over for the first round of the Pegasus was lack of big enough facilities to accommodate the new plane, which has a larger fuel capacity and longer wingspan than the half century-old Stratotanker.

"Part of it has to do with infrastructure and the fact that we just didn't have enough hangar space and fuel pit space for the first round," Durbin said. "That's what knocked us out. And so we're going to talk about that very candidly with (Gen. Welsh) in terms of what we may need for the second or even third rounds."

The campaign to bring the KC-46A to Scott, as well as other assets, is spearheaded by Leadership Council Southwest Illinois. The council hired a Washington, D.C., consulting firm to help it reach out to decision-makers in Congress and elsewhere in hopes of getting them to look favorably upon Scott.

The council has so far raised $1.37 million toward its $3.2 million goal for its economic development campaign "One Voice. United for Growth."

Its top goal is to protect and enhance Scott, whose more than 13,000 military and civilian workers and $3.2 billion annual fiscal effect make it the metro-east's most important economic pillar.

Key members of the team hired to protect Scott are former U.S. Rep. Jerry Costello, D-Belleville, and retired Air Force Gen. Duncan McNabb, the former commander of the U.S. Transportation Command, based at Scott.

Ellen Krohne, the council executive director, declined to discuss the council's specific strategy for protecting Scott and expanding its mission.

Krohne cited the need to keep such information confidential from competitor communities pursuing the same goals for their military bases.

"We clearly are working on keeping the base growing, which means we're going to go after other things to bring here," she said.

And that includes the KC-46A. As for Costello and McNabb's mission, "part of what we want them to do is make sure we have the right connections at the Pentagon," Krohne said.

Eye on the prize

The Air Force plans to buy 179 KC-46As to replace about 400 KC-135s, which average more than 50 years in age apiece, and 59 KC-10 air tankers, with the deliveries of the new plane to be completed in 2028.

In choosing the air bases that would be the first to get the KC-46A, the Air Force cited a matrix of factors, including base locations, local weather and existing infrastructure.

One of the big intangibles was the level of community support for the candidate bases.

Showing high levels of such support became a top priority for business and community leaders in Wichita, Kan., which succeeded in landing three squadrons of active-duty KC-46As -- 36 in all -- for McConnell Air Force Base.

Already the Air Force has allocated nearly $220 million for improvements at McConnell, the first signs of an economic windfall that's likely to stretch on for many decades, even as overall military budgets shrink, according to Wayne Roberts, the chairman of the Wichita Chamber of Commerce's Tanker Task Force.

Just as important, the decision to locate the KC-46A at McConnell -- and the investment of many millions of Air Force dollars -- will virtually guarantee the base in southeastern Kansas will survive future Pentagon efforts to close other military bases nationwide.

It's a process that communities surrounding the bases not picked for the KC-46A will have to sweat out with future BRAC's possible.

The task force's sole mission was to bring the coveted KC-46A to McConnell, a mission accomplished through a "full court press" that involved the entire community, he said.

The economic pay-off from their successful campaign will be huge, Roberts said.

"This is the biggest economic shot in the arm this community's had in a long time," Roberts said. "So it's a big deal for us."

The Wichita tanker task force, which formed in early 2012, focused on developing a unified strategy among business and government leaders.

"Because it's real easy for people to go off in a lot of different directions with a mixed message," he said. "You got to get on target with one consistent message."

The message centered on the Wichita area's immense support for its air base, a message bolstered by the combined forces of its Congressional delegation and a 20-minute video extolling McConnell's advantages.

Roberts acknowledged the Air Force weighed many details in choosing McConnell over its closest competitor, Fairchild Air Force Base, outside Spokane, Wash.

Certainly the Wichita region's excellent year-round weather for flight operations and a well-known local aviation industry worked to McConnell's advantage, he acknowledged.

But the Wichita tanker task force wasn't going to leave any intangibles to chance, such as expressing the intense community support for both the base and the KC-46A, Roberts said.

Toward this end, the Wichita tanker task force in late 2012 sent a small group of representatives to the Pentagon to make their case for why McConnell should get the first batch of active-duty KC-46As.

The task force followed up a few months later with a delegation sent to Scott Air Force Base, to meet with Gen. Paul Selva, the Air Mobility Command chief, Roberts said.

"It's kind of easy to sell something when you have a good product," Roberts said, "and we felt like we had a great product to sell."

As with any courtship, a community seeking a prize such as the KC-46A must go all-out in signaling desire, according to Dion Avello, the mayor of Derby, Kan., which sits next door to McConnell.

"You have to show the Air Force that you want them, you really want them," Avello said. "We had a full court press on them."

Krohne, the leadership council executive director, said she couldn't say whether Scott would have landed on the short list for the Pegasus if metro-east leaders had employed the same approach pursued by Wichita.

"We have a task force now, and we are focused on making sure we continue the growth of the base," she said.

Krohne, though, acknowledged that Scott's being left off the initial list for the KC-46A was a wake-up call, and "compelled us to say, 'we need to be more proactive perhaps, right?'"

U.S. Rep. Bill Enyart, D-Belleville, whose district encompasses Scott, expressed optimism about the prospect of the new air tanker arriving a Scott.

"As we sit here today, I can't say it'll be eight years from now or 20 years from now because we just don't know," Enyart said. "Because they are constantly re-evaluating. But what I can tell that what I'm doing is working very hard to put in the funding streams for improvements to that base that will keep us high on the list for future bases."

Enyart emphasized the importance of maintaining flight operations at Scott, "and so long term, of course, we want to grow into the KC-46As."

The fact that Scott was not picked for the first wave of the new air tanker "is not a kind of death row," he said.

As more KC-46As enter the Air Force fleet, "there'll be other factors they'll be looking at ... and I think Scott clearly is at the very top of the list."

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

 

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