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MacDill getting eight more KC-135 tankers — maybe

TAMPA — The Air Force plans to slash its ranks, retire a big chunk of its aircraft fleet and trim billions of dollars from its budget in coming years.

Can there be any good news for MacDill Air Force Base amid such carnage?

Maybe.

The Air Force's long-range plans, recently unveiled in the proposed fiscal 2015 Pentagon budget, call for MacDill to add eight KC-135 aerial refueling aircraft to its fleet of 16 in 2018 along with nearly 300 additional personnel to tend them.

U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa, hailed the news as "the first glimpse of success" for a bipartisan effort she led to expand MacDill's mission.

But should Tampa roll out the welcome wagon just yet?

What was not discussed by Castor and others celebrating the additional KC-135s is that the Air Force's announcement, if encouraging, includes a large degree of uncertainty.

"This is far from a done deal," said Todd Harrison, a senior fellow who specializes in defense budget analysis at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments in Washington, D.C. "It's something for the area to think positively about. It's good for them."

But Harrison said some skepticism is necessary given the realities of the federal budget.

The budget, he noted, is a political process in which members of Congress move to undo Air Force cuts on their own turf at the expense of other regions.

"You always have to be cognizant that any plan like this has a political dimension to it," Harrison said. "When you make tough decisions you are knowingly creating winners and losers. There are political implications to that. That's just the reality of democracy."

The Air Force is already taking political heat for its proposal to kill the A-10 "Warthog" fleet for a $3.5 billion savings over five years. If the fleet survives, the Air Force may have to look to cut something else, Harrison said.

The Air Force also may be forced to cut billions more starting in 2016 if automatic sequestration cuts are made.

The Pentagon's "five-year plans are $115 billion above these budget caps," Harrison said. "They are not actually planning for the full cuts that are current law."

Unless Congress reverses them, Harrison said, "Some of the KC-135s may be sacrificed."

Air Force leaders say they would have to retire an additional 80 aircraft from the nearly 500 it already plans to mothball in the next five years if Congress does not repeal sequestration.

But right now, the KC-135 seems well positioned even if those cuts come. Air Force leaders said they would first cut another tanker, the KC-10, rather than the KC-135s.

Leaders of Air Force bases are usually discouraged from talking about the budget process, and MacDill officials did not respond to a request for comment.

The Air Force also is cutting roughly 20,000 positions in fiscal 2015. But specific totals by base are not available.

An Air Force spokeswoman at the Pentagon acknowledged the service's plan could change and that it is too early to call the additional KC-135s for MacDill a certainty.

"We put forth our best plan," said spokeswoman Ann Stefanek. "A lot can happen between now and then. … We don't know what we don't know. Things can always change."

The Air Force wants to phase out the Eisenhower-era KC-135s over the next two to three decades, replacing them with a the KC-46 tanker, which Boeing is producing.

Castor said the eight additional KC-135s slated for MacDill would come from McConnell Air Force Base in Kansas, which is slated to get the first deliveries of new tankers.

The Air Force could not confirm this, though a spokeswoman said it was likely MacDill would get aircraft replaced by the KC-46.

Castor said that puts MacDill in a better position politically as Kansas officials are not actually losing aircraft and therefore will not be lobbying the Pentagon to keep its KC-135s.

"There would be a concern if McConnell were losing aircraft and shutting down," Castor said.

Boeing expects to deliver the first 18 KC-46s by 2017. The Air Force budget says it is transferring 28 KC-135s to four bases by 2018, including the eight to MacDill.

One potential complication could also arise if the KC-46 program is delayed. Boeing said it is on schedule. But the Pentagon reported in January the program is six months to a year behind schedule.

Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark A. Welsh III told Congress on Wednesday that there are no more easy cuts remaining in his budget.

"We built this budget to ensure that Air Force combat power remains unequaled," he said. "But that does not mean it will remain unaffected."

William R. Levesque can be reached at levesque@tampabay.com.

MacDill getting eight more KC-135 tankers — maybe 03/29/14 [Last modified: Sunday, March 30, 2014 12:42am]

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