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WASHINGTON — A decision on which bases will host the US Air Force’s new tanker program is coming before the end of May.
Gen. Mark Welsh, Air Force chief of staff, told the Senate Appropriations defense subcommittee that an announcement is expected “later this month” on where the first wave of KC-46As will be based. The Air Force has previously identified Altus AFB in Okla., Fairchild AFB in Wash., Grand Forks AFB in N.D., and McConnell AFB, Kan., as potential locations.
The basing decision is another step forward for the new tanker, which Welsh identified as the number one modernization priority for the service during his testimony.
The KC-46 program will produce 179 new planes to replace the aging KC-135 tanker fleet, with 18 tankers delivered by 2017 and production ending in 2027.
But it is only the first in a three-stage process to replace the entire US Air Force tanker fleet, something Air Force Secretary Michael Donley pointed out to the panel. The second step in the tanker replacement program, known as the KC-Y, will begin work next summer.
“The basing involves the first three bases. We have 179 tankers. This is less than half of the tanker force that is going to be modernized,” Donley said.
“It is not necessarily the end of the world for those bases not chosen. They will continue to operate the KC-135 going forward. If we want to modernize the tanker force, we’re going to have to do more than we’re doing in the KC-46 program. We have to buy more tankers and we have to buy them faster. That’s one way to get more tankers to tanker bases.”