The Pentagon announced Wednesday that MacDill Air Force Base is no longer in the running to win the first of the Air Force's next-generation air refueling aircraft the Boeing Co. will begin delivering by 2017.
The decision is a blow to Tampa Bay and the bipartisan political effort to persuade the Air Force to assign the new tankers to MacDill. It guarantees MacDill's aging fleet of 16 KC-135 refuelers will remain a fixture in the skies around Tampa for decades to come.
"I am not real happy," said U.S. Rep. C.W. Bill Young, R-Indian Shores, who was informed of the decision by Gen. Mark Welsh III, the Air Force chief of staff. "I was rather curt with him and expressed my disappointment and unhappiness."
The Air Force will gradually phase in the new tanker, called the KC-46, during the next two decades with plans calling for 179 of the new aircraft — costing $35 billion — to replace part of the Air Force's fleet of more than 400 KC-135s.
MacDill is unlikely to get any of those 179 aircraft, according to Air Force documents released Wednesday. If MacDill gets any new planes at all, the documents indicate, it will be after 2028 when the Air Force tentatively plans to launch a competition to design and build two additional models, now called KC-y and KC-z.
But late Wednesday, there was some confusion among political and Air Force officials about whether MacDill is absolutely prohibited from getting any future KC-46s at all because it lost this first round of assignments. The Air Force is always free to change its selection criteria.
"Politics has been known to interfere with basing decisions on aircraft," said Richard Aboulafia, an aerospace industry analyst.
Young said Air Force officials had led him to believe in recent years that MacDill would be among the bases to win the KC-46. The Air Force said 54 bases were under consideration.
"My comment to (Welsh) was that I had been led down the primrose path for years," Young said.
The Air Force released a list of finalists Wednesday for the first three bases competing to get the KC-46. Of those, one will be an active Air Force base that will get 36 new tankers. A second will be a training center and the third will be an Air National Guard base.
MacDill was vying only for the active Air Force base slot because it has no Air National Guard or training facilities.
MacDill lost out to Altus Air Force Base in Oklahoma, Fairchild Air Force Base in Washington state, Grand Forks Air Force Base in North Dakota and McConnell Air Force Base in Kansas. Final selection comes in the spring.
All these bases have larger fleets of KC-135s than MacDill.
"If you did the odds on it, it was a very, very tough competition," said Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn.
MacDill is in no immediate danger of losing its KC-135s — four-engine Eisenhower-era tankers with the nickname "stratotanker." The Air Force said it is committed to supporting the KC-135s for many years.
"I want to stress that the KC-135 units not replaced with the KC-46 will continue to fly . . . for the foreseeable future," Welsh said in a written statement.
Young said the general told him "MacDill will have tankers for the rest of our lives and the lives of our children."
Col. Scott DeThomas, commander of MacDill's 6th Air Mobility Wing, said the KC-135 will remain part of the Air Force arsenal for at least 25 years.
"MacDill's tankers, the KC-135s, will continue to be the mainstay of Air Force refueling," he said.
The KC-46 is among the Air Force's top procurement priorities because of the increasing cost of maintaining the KC-135s. But the competition to design and build the tankers between Boeing and Northrop Grumman was star-crossed for years with ethics scandals, delays and bare-knuckled politics. Boeing finally won out.
Pilots of the KC-135s tend to have a real affection for the aircraft. While the planes are among the oldest in the Air Force fleet, they are not viewed as a flight safety concern.
Engines and avionics are constantly upgraded. In fact, with the pace of operations to refuel aircraft in the Middle East, the KC-135 flies far more today than it did during the Cold War.
"It's like an old car," Senior Airman Luke Johnson, an aircraft mechanic, told the Times in 2008. "Change the tires. Check the oil. Take care of it and it lasts forever."
Tampa Bay political leaders met with Air Force officials last year to argue that MacDill deserved the new tankers.
The Air Force said it considered a long list of criteria in selecting the finalists, from fuel storage capacity to communications infrastructure. The Air Force did not say what tipped the balance against MacDill.
"We knew we had tough competition," said U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa. "Fortunately, the Air Force is committed to the current . . . tanker mission at MacDill."
Political leaders said losing the KC-46 does not threaten MacDill's existence as has been suggested by some, including Castor's opponent in the 2012 election. The Pentagon spent hundreds of millions upgrading the base recently, and MacDill is home to the nation's top two combat commands, U.S. Special Operations Command and Central Command.
MacDill "is a viable base. It's a needed base,'' Buckhorn said. ". . . Obviously, you like to win every time, but we recognize that doesn't always happen."
Times staff writer Richard Danielson and researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. William R. Levesque can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3432.