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Grand Forks Air Force Base named finalist for new tanker mission

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An Air Force illustration of a KC-46A flying tanker. Illustration courtesy of U.S. Air Force.2 / 3
An Air Force illustration of a KC-46A flying tanker refueling a C-17. Illustration courtesy of U.S. Air Force.3 / 3

GRAND FORKS - Grand Forks Air Force Base is one of four finalists to become the active-duty main-operating base for the Air Force's new KC-46A tankers, the state's congressional delegation announced today.

The other finalists are: Altus Air Force Base, Okla.; McConnell Air Force Base, Kan.; and Fairchild Air Force Base, Wash.

"We are and we have been working hard to do all we can to push for Grand Forks' selection as one of the active duty base locations," Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D, told the Herald's editorial board. "It's good that we're in the running, but it's tough competition."

The Air Force plans to announce the KC-46A main operating base by May, according to Hoeven.

Altus and McConnell also are finalists to be designated as the training base for the new tankers.

The Air Force also announced candidate bases for the Air National Guard-led KC-46A main-operating base. They are: Forbes Air Guard Station, Kan.; Joint-Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, N.J.; Pease Air Guard Station, N.H.; Pittsburgh International Airport Air Guard Station, Pa.; and Rickenbacker Air Guard Station, Ohio.

The main-operating base and training base are scheduled to begin receiving aircraft in 2016, while the Guard base will receive aircraft in 2018, according to a Department of Defense news release.

A total of 179 KC-46A aircraft are included in the first phase of a three-phase effort to replace more than 400 KC-135 and 59 KC-10 aircraft, according to the release.

While several bases will host the KC-46A, only one serves as the main-operating base.

"The KC-46A will have enhanced refueling capacity and capabilities, improved efficiency, and increased capabilities for cargo and aeromedical evacuation as compared to the KC-135R, making it a vital component to maintaining our global reach for years to come," Gen. Mark Welsh III, Air Force chief of staff, said in the news release.

However, the entire KC-135 fleet will not be replaced entirely, he said.

The Air Force will make on-site surveys of each candidate base over the next two months, assessing each location against operational and training requirements, potential impacts to existing missions, housing, infrastructure and manpower, according to the announcement.

Hoeven met with Welsh in December, highlighting the strengths of the Grand Forks base and the region. He stressed the base infrastructure, the remoteness and open air of the Northern Plains, as well as the proximity to strategic aerial routes over the North Pole.

Grand Forks hosted the Air Force's KC-135 refueling tankers for 50 years, before that mission ended at the end of the 2010. The base has been transitioning to an unmanned aerial systems mission for the past several years, and currently hosts the Global Hawk Block 40 aircraft.

UND operates a UAS Center of Excellence in Grand Forks and at the air base. The state's congressional delegation also is working with Grand Forks economic development leaders to develop an extended use lease program at the base, to attract other UAS businesses and groups to the region.

In addition, North Dakota is among the states vying to become a UAS pilot training site for the Federal Aviation Administration. A decision is expected to be made later this year.

"We're going to do everything we can to get the tanker mission," Hoeven said. "It's tough competition, and I want to be very realistic about that. At the same time, we have to push and do all we can to enhance the UAS here."