The first wave of KC-46 aircraft will not be coming to Tampa despite nearly a year of lobbying by a group of local government and civic leaders to bring the new aerial refueling jets to MacDill Air Force Base.
The decision on finalists for hosting the new planes, announced by the Air Force on Wednesday, will likely cost the region millions in construction dollars as well as new Air Force jobs at the base.
Those who led the effort to win the planes expressed disappointment and anger, but also confidence that the base itself – which pumps billions of dollars into the local economy – is not imperiled by the decision.
MacDill is home to two major commands, U.S. Central Command and U.S. Special Operations Command, and now hosts the current generation of refueling jets – 16 KC-135 Stratotankers.
Those planes, which first began rolling off assembly lines when Eisenhower was in the White House, will fly out of MacDill for years, according to U.S. Reps. Kathy Castor and C.W. "Bill" Young.
The jets are flown by the 6th Air Mobility Wing, the base’s host unit, and the 927th Air Refueling Wing, an Air Force Reserve unit.
Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh "told me there will be KC-135s at MacDill for generations," Young said in a telephone interview.
Col. Scott DeThomas, 6th Air Mobility Wing commander, said, the KC-46 will begin operating in 2016 but the KC-135s will continue to receive upgrades to communications, engine and navigation and surveillance systems.
"The Air Force expects the KC-135 to remain in our inventory for at least another 25 years," DeThomas said.
Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn said while the news was disappointing, it was not a complete surprise. The Air Force is pursuing three options for basing the KC-46 planes – a main operating base, a training base and a National Guard base.
MacDill only met the criteria for one of those – the main operating base, which will host 36 of the new aircraft.
"The bases chosen were much bigger and, from the Air Force perspective, more strategically located," Buckhorn said.
The Air Force considered factors like proximity to aircraft that need refueling, airfield availability, existing infrastructure and the cost of housing the new planes.
MacDill did not fair well in the major categories, according to a score sheet the Air Force provided to Castor, the Tampa Democrat.
Out of 100 overall points, the base received a score of just under 48.
Air Force spokeswoman Ann Stefanek said the Air Force did not provide comparisons of individual bases. She said that in addition to the scores, Air Force leaders applied "military judgment" to their decision making.
Young, the Indian Shores Republican and chairman of the influential House Appropriations Committee Defense Subcommittee, said he is angered by the decision.
"I felt like I was led down a primrose lane," Young said. Air Force officials led him to believe MacDill would at least be a finalist for the first round of new tankers, he said.
The Air Force evaluated 54 active Air Force sites in the continental United States as the main operating base for the new tankers. The list was narrowed to Altus Air Force Base, Okla.; Fairchild Air Force Base, Wash.; Grand Forks Air Force Base, N.D.; and McConnell Air Force Base, Kan.
All are major bases with larger fleets than MacDill, Castor said.
Despite being left out of the first wave of new jets, local official express hope that MacDill will be considered in future rounds. All told, the Air Force has agreed to purchase more than 400 of the jets from Boeing, for a total of about $40 billion.
"We will still push for the second iteration of the new jets," said Greg Celestan, a retired Army colonel and chairman of the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce, which combined forces with Castor on the MacDill Means Mobility effort.
Celestan said the planes would have meant "clearly millions" in new construction and upwards of 100 new Air Force jobs.
The KC-46 jets are bigger than the Stratotankers and the Air Force is calling for more than $4 billion in military construction for the new planes over about a dozen years.
Not everyone in Tampa was bemoaning the Air Force decision.
Dave Snyder, a retired Air Force brigadier general who served as commander of the 6th Air Mobility Wing from 2003 to 2005, said the decision is actually good news for the base.
"I think it is better," said Snyder. "There will be a lot of turmoil and angst over what needs to be done in first round. The beta versions will probably be upgraded and we will have a better idea of what needs to be done. We will be well positioned to get jets in a later round."