Leaders working to bring displaced KC-135s to MacDill AFB

Though Tampa’s MacDill Air Force Base isn’t on the latest short list of installations that could receive the new KC-46A Pegasus aerial refueling tankers, the announcement Tuesday by the Air Force Reserve may ultimately prove to be a boon locally.

That’s because MacDill, which is not an Air Force Reserve base and thus was never under consideration for the latest round of new tankers, could be in the running for the KC-135 tankers displaced by the new planes, say community leaders, who are pushing to make that happen.

On Tuesday, the Air Force Reserve announced that Tinker Air Force Base, Oklahoma, Seymour-Johnson AFB, North Carolina, Westover Air Reserve Base, Massachusetts, and Grissom ARB, Indiana, are candidate bases for the first Air Force Reserve-led KC-46A Pegasus location.

The Air Force hopes to whittle down the list by the summer.

In the meantime, the local effort to bring displaced KC-135 Stratotankers to MacDill, spearheaded by Congressmembers Kathy Castor and David Jolly, continues, said retired Air Force Gen. Chip Diehl, a former MacDill base commander who now serves as vice president of the Tampa Bay Defense Alliance, an organization advocating for MacDill and other military related issues.

“When these bases get the KC-46, we want the KC-135s to continue to come here,” said Diehl.

Air Force officials say no decision have yet been made about relocating the Stratotankers.

“It is too early in the process to determine fleet management decisions which may result from this action,” said Air Force spokeswoman Ann Stefanek.MacDill currently has 16 of the Eisenhower-era tankers, which are shared by the 6th Air Mobility Wing and its Reserve partner, the 927th Air Refueling Wing. Some of those jets have been used in the fight against Islamic State.

The base is expecting an additional eight tankers, which will begin arriving by 2017. They would come with 220 additional active duty personnel and 75 reservists, an Air Force spokeswoman said last year. Those tankers are coming from bases that will receive the new Pegasus tankers, part of a $50 billion program to replace the aging existing fleet 179 new planes by 2028.

In 2013, the Air Force announced that MacDill was unsuccessful in its bid to be one of the first bases to receive the new tankers.

That first wave of new tankers would have brought 36 jets here, said Diehl, adding that the goal is to prove to the Air Force that MacDill can handle that many planes. With the eight Stratotankers on the way, that means local officials are pushing for an additional 12 jets, he said.

The mission is to show Air Mobility Command and other decision makers that MacDill has the operational and logistical capacity to handle more planes.

Last year, Castor announced that MacDill will likely receive $32 million in military construction funds to help accommodate the new tankers. Diehl said a new hangar may be needed as well as additional fuel hydrants, among other things.

“Our MacDill Means Mobility campaign will not stop there and will advocate for KC-46s to be assigned to MacDill in future years/decades,” said Castor through spokeswoman Marcia Mejia.

Likewise, Jolly, who has also been working to bring 23 Army Reserve Black Hawk helicopters to MacDill from St. Pete-Clearwater International Airport, supports additional tankers coming to MacDill.

“I am advocating for our regional assets including MacDill’s potential growth,” he said. “We need to ensure MacDill has sufficient capacity for additional fixed wing aircraft and helicopters. To that end future budgets should include resources for additional hangars and runways to ensure the base can continue to grow.”

Jolly and other community leaders recently visited Scott Air Force Base in Illinois, home of Air Mobility Command, to lobby on behalf of MacDill.