Will Scott Air Force Base land new air tankers?

By MIKE FITZGERALD | Belleville News-Democrat | Published: January 20, 2013

SCOTT AIR FORCE BASE — The metro-east's biggest employer did not make the finalist list for the Air Force's new KC-46A air tanker because the base lacked big enough hangars, fuel pits and other infrastructure for the state-of-the-art aircraft, according to those familiar with the selection process.

Consequently, U.S. Reps. Bill Enyart, D-Belleville, and Rodney Davis, R-Taylorville, have announced they are teaming up to push for federal money to upgrade Scott's infrastructure to compete for a place on the next list of KC-46A candidate bases.

Scott is already home to eight KC-135 Air Stratotankers -- their average age: 50 years plus -- assigned to the 126th Air National Guard Refueling Wing.

"So it's going to mean pouring some more concrete and putting some more buildings up to get them in there," said Enyart, a freshman congressman who sits on the House Armed Services Committee. "So we're going to be working to ensure that we can get that funded as the time comes near."

Davis agrees with Enyart's call "for Scott to receive more money for infrastructure," while the congressman will "work with the Department of Defense to see that Scott is and remains eligible for future infrastructure dollars," according to a written statement from a Davis spokesman.

The push to upgrade Scott, which could pour millions of dollars in new investment into the nearly century-old air base, comprises one prong of a dual-pronged strategy metro-east leaders are pursuing to get Scott on the list for future KC-46A tankers, which the Air Force has declared its top "acquisition and recapitalization priority."

The second prong centers on the mobilization of metro-east community groups, working in tandem with Illinois and Missouri congressional delegations, to get the Air Force to give the air base another look.

The stakes of the competition for the $40 billion air tanker program are high for Scott Air Force Base and political leaders in Missouri and Illinois.

In an era when deep cuts in military spending are expected, these leaders are anxious about preserving the air base's $3 billion-per-year economic impact on the region.

Their anxieties will be ramping up ever higher during the next two years because of the expected return of the Base Realignment and Closure Commission. The blue ribbon panel, after an eight-year hiatus, will be tasked with deciding which military bases at home and abroad to close, keep open or expand.

Though nothing in military spending is guaranteed these days, the communities surrounding the nine candidate KC-46A air bases from Washington State to Pennsylvania are feeling assured that those air bases will survive for many decades to come.

The life cycle of air tankers is unusually long. The eight KC-135's at Scott average more than 50 years old apiece, and the Air Force plans to continue flying them for another 30 years -- under the control of air crews not even born yet.

Ellen Krohne, the executive director of the Leadership Council Southwest Illinois, said her group is setting up meetings with members of Congress, as well with top officers at Scott.

"Given the capabilities of Scott, I think we need to really understand why were not on the list and what we can do to get on the list," Krohne said. "I think we should do everything we can to make that happen."

Another major player will be the statewide the Interagency Military Base Support and Economic Development Committee, which is chaired by Illinois Lt. Gov. Sheila Simon.

Simon acknowledged the effort to protect Scott suffered a blow with the retirement of veteran U.S. Rep. Jerry Costello, D-Belleville, who left office earlier this month after 24 years.

Costello, who worked well on both sides of the aisle, was widely credited with expanding Scott's mission and bringing the 126th Air Refueling Wing to the air base in 1999.

"I don't think we have the seniority that we used to have, but I think we got some really strong advocates," said Simon, referring to freshmen congressmen Davis and Enyart, the latter a former commander of the Illinois National Guard.

"He just starts ahead of the curve," she said of Enyart.

Metro-east leaders are hopeful they can bring a new generation of air tankers to Scott. They point to the fact that U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Springfield, in addition to serving as assistant majority leader, is poised to assume one of the most powerful jobs in Congress -- chairmanship of the Senate Subcommittee on Defense Appropriations.

"And it doesn't hurt to have the president of the United States, too" from Illinois, Simon said.

Under Air Force plans, three of the nine 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.

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.

But the odds of Scott making the cut for next round are extremely long, according to Ann Stephanek, a U.S. Department of the Air Force spokeswoman.

Of the nine candidate bases, 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.

Although the expected criteria for future base selections will remain the same, "there's a lot of time between now and then, there are a lot of variables," Stephanek said. "It's too early to tell."

Col. Peter Nezamis, the 126th Air Refueling Wing commander, called it "conceivable" that his unit could get on the list for future KC-46As. But he also acknowledged that the next Air National Guard units to get the new air tanker will come from the list of five announced Jan. 9.

"What we would like to do is attempt to improve our position for subsequent rounds," Nezamis said.

But those bases on the announced short list are, according to the Air Force, "a stronger possibility of being selected for subsequent bed-downs of that airplane," he said.

But even if Scott isn't chosen for the KC-46A, the air refueling wing has plans to continue operating at Scott for at least another 30 years, Nezamis said.

"Yes, we're operating a 50-year-old airplane," he said. "We're supposed to operate this airplane and we will. We have an incredibly experienced workforce in the guard that'll keep this airframe, the KC-135, flying for the next 30 years."

By 2028, the Air Force has plans to announced plans for a new generation of air tankers -- dubbed KC-Ys and KC-Zs -- for air bases that have not yet received the KC-46A, according to Enyart.

"So we're going to be in the refueling business for a long time," he said. "And it's just a question of time, I think, as to when we'll get those upgraded planes. These are long-term programs. They got a long horizon. That's why it's important that we have a long-term horizon, too."


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