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Tampa Bay leaders tout MacDill Air Force Base as home for new refueling tankers

TAMPA — A delegation of Tampa Bay business and political leaders is launching a bipartisan effort to persuade the Pentagon to bring a fleet of the next generation of aerial refueling tankers to MacDill Air Force Base starting in 2017.

The effort opens what promises to be an intense competition among Air Force communities trying to land the new KC-46A tankers and whatever economic bounty the jets bring them.

U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa, said Wednesday she will head a group that includes Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn in a June 6 meeting in Washington, D.C., with the deputy assistant secretary of the Air Force for installations, Kathleen Ferguson. The meeting will be followed by a kickoff reception called "MacDill Means Mobility" that includes members of Tampa Bay's congressional delegation.

"We are going to launch an effort to raise the profile of MacDill Air Force Base to convince the decisionmakers at the Air Force that MacDill is best situated" to get the new tankers, Castor said. "We have to raise our profile and make our case."

The Air Force expects to make a final decision on the three bases to receive the first KC-46A refuelers — two operational bases and one training center — over the next two years. But the Air Force will release its preferred selections starting later this year.

MacDill currently is home to 16 KC-135 refueling tankers, an Eisenhower-era jet nicknamed the stratotanker. The Air Force will gradually phase out 179 stratotankers over the next 20 years as 179 KC-46As replace them. The Boeing Co. expects to deliver the first 18 KC-46As in 2017.

Of the first three bases to be selected, the training center will get eight KC-46As and the larger of the two operational bases will receive 36 of the new jets.

The third operational base and its 12 refueling tankers must have a National Guard component, which would appear to exclude MacDill, Castor said.

The Air Force has said replacing its aging fleet of stratotankers is its top acquisition priority because of the rising maintenance costs associated with the older jets.

The Air Force in recent weeks released a set of mostly technical criteria it will use to determine which Air Force bases should get the first of the new aircraft. The criteria include things such as runway length, hangar space and fuel-storage capacity.

MacDill officials declined to comment.

Castor said MacDill appears to be well-situated to win the new tankers. The base is on a peninsula, she said, and so encroaching development is not an issue. She also said the runway length is adequate for the new, larger tankers.

"I don't see any drawbacks" to MacDill, Castor said.

Three other Air Force bases in the United States are home to more stratotankers than MacDill's 16, including McConnell Air Force Base in Kansas, where 48 KC-135s are housed. And communities near some of those bases, including McConnell, have already launched efforts to sway Air Force decisionmakers, Castor said.

"We're all going to make the best cases for our communities," she said.

Even if MacDill loses out on this first round of KC-46A assignments, the base is expected to eventually win assignment of some new refuelers in years to come, base officials have said.

MacDill has a $2.87 billion economic impact on the Tampa Bay economy, the Air Force says.

William R. Levesque can be reached at levesque@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3432.

Tampa Bay leaders tout MacDill Air Force Base as home for new refueling tankers 05/30/12 [Last modified: Thursday, May 31, 2012 12:31am]

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