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WICHITA, KAN. — The U.S. Air Force has given final approval to McConnell Air Force Base in Wichita as the home of the new KC-46A air refueling tanker, according to Kansas congressmen.
Sens. Pat Roberts and Jerry Moran, along with U.S. Rep. Mike Pompeo, said the Air Force informed them Tuesday that the base had passed an environmental impact study, which was the last requirement before final approval. The Air Force selected McConnell in May 2013 to be the home for the new tankers, pending the outcome of the environmental study.
The decision to house 36 new tankers at the base, beginning in early 2016, means McConnell can begin spending $219 million to prepare for the tankers, which will replace aging fleet of KC-135 planes housed at the base since the 1950s.
Bids have already been taken to begin construction this year but contracts couldn't be signed until the final approval was received, The Wichita Eagle reported. Of the $219 million for improvements, $194 million will be used to build three hangars.
Tuesday's announcement ends an effort by Washington state's congressional delegation to persuade the Air Force to place the tankers at Fairchild Air Force Base in Spokane. McConnell was chosen in May over bases in Washington, North Dakota and Oklahoma.
"Once they've begun to spend that money, there's no turning back," Pompeo said.
Moran and Roberts praised the decision in written statements.
"The upcoming arrival of the new KC-46A tanker fleet at McConnell translates into an economic boost for the community, which will endure for years to come as each phase of preparation is completed," Moran said.
"Once again, Kansas will be taking a leading role in protecting our national security by providing next generation capability in global reach," Roberts' statement said. "As the Air Capital of the World, Wichita is the perfect home for this new mission."
Wichita City Council member Janet Miller said the announcement was "fantastic news" that assured McConnell's future in Wichita.
"It's a big component of Wichita's economy and a big component of our citizenry who live, shop and spend money here," she said.
McConnell supports more than 17,000 people, both military and civilian, with an economic impact of $619 million to the city. The number of people at the base is not expected to increase immediately but that could change as the planes arrive, Roberts has said.
The first combat-ready KC-46As should be built by January or February, Pompeo said, and McConnell should get its first tanker 12 months later. McConnell will continue using the KC-135s while transitioning to the new tankers as they arrive at the base over several years.
Boeing has a $35 billion contract to build 179 new tankers by 2027. The Air Force has said it hopes to eventually have 10 bases with new tankers.