Three years ago, U.S. Rep. Donald Norcross and many of his New Jersey colleagues in Congress were celebrating the Air Force’s announcement that Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst would become home to at least two dozen of the newest tanker jets, the KC-46.
The Boeing-built jets are expected to phase out the Air Force’s fleet of legacy KC-10 tankers from the 1980s and even some of the older KC-135s that have helped refuel other aircraft and move personnel and supplies since the 1950s. And the decision to locate the new KC-46s at the joint base was celebrated as a momentous development that would ensure the future of the base’s critical air-refueling mission for decades to come.
“Today’s news marks the next chapter in the joint base’s outstanding service to America, and the future looks strong,” Norcross, D-1 of Camden, said back in January 2017, when the Air Force announced the joint base would receive the new tankers in 2021.
But development of the new tankers has suffered some high-profile delays and setbacks, the biggest being a still-unsolved glitch surrounding the plane’s Remote Vision System software, which allows the flight crew’s boom operator to guide the refueling arm used to fill up other jets in flight.
The issue has raised questions about when the KC-46s will become fully operational, both for refueling operations at home and abroad. It’s caused some in Congress to consider whether the Air Force should continue accepting the new jets being built by Boeing, as well as whether it should follow through with a plan to retire 16 of the legacy KC-10 tankers during the 2021 fiscal year.
The proposed 2021 retirement plan calls for 14 of the 32 KC-10s stationed at the joint base to be retired. The other two jets being retired are at Travis Air Force Base in Northern California, according to Norcross’ office.
Over 1,000 jobs on the base are attached to the big tankers.
In response, Norcross and other members of New Jersey’s delegation, including Rep. Andy Kim, D-3 of Moorestown, have started engaging with Air Force brass and other defense leaders about potentially delaying the KC-10 retirements.
At the same time, they’re also opposing efforts to either pause or slow the delivery of the KC-46s.
In an interview, Norcross said he believes that stopping production and delivery of the new tankers would be a mistake.
“We’ve been very deep in the weeds with the new Remote Vision System. I now know more about depth perception than I ever imagined,” the congressman said Thursday. “We have to get this right. We have many missions out there that depend on (refueling).”
But he added that “95% of the plane does not involve the Remote Vision System,” so he sees no reason to halt production or delivery of the jets.
“We can build those planes and continue its mission while (the Remote Vision System) is being fixed,” Norcross said Wednesday during an Armed Services Committee hearing featuring Gen. Steve Lyons, commander of the U.S. Transportation Command.
He also supports delaying retirement of the KC-10s.
Originally, six of the joint base’s big tankers were scheduled to be taken out of service next year as part of the transition to the KC-46s. However, the number was increased to 14 as part of the Pentagon’s budget proposal, an unexpected move that the Air Force described as a cost-saving measure that would help ensure the military has the funds needed to continue its modernization.
The budget also calls for the continued procurement of more KC-46s from Boeing.
Norcross said the move to retire additional KC-10s was surprising but also one the Air Force is willing to reconsider if additional funding is made available. He said estimates are that another $70 million would stave off the additional retirements.
“The Air Force wants to keep (the KC-10s), but we need to find the money,” he said. “I believe we will find that money.”
Advocating for the base
Norcross has been in this fight before. Almost from his first day in Washington, the Camden lawmaker has made protecting McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst his adopted cause.
The base may not technically be part of his district, but the former electrician and state legislator knows how important the megabase is to New Jersey as a whole and South Jersey in particular.
Only the state government itself employs more people, and the installation is credited with contributing billions to the state’s economy, to say nothing of its importance to national security.
It’s why Norcross pushed for a spot on the House Armed Services Committee, the congressional panel responsible for overseeing military spending and policy. He’s now chairman of the panel’s Tactical Air and Land Forces Subcommittee. And it’s also why he has become so deeply involved with Boeing’s development of the KC-46.
During his first year in office, Norcross also teamed with former Republican Congressman Tom MacArthur in sponsoring an amendment to the annual defense policy and spending bill that protected the KC-10s from retirement.
The KC-10 fleet was being targeted at the time to squeeze under sequestration-imposed spending caps. New Jersey officials feared that if the joint base lost those planes before KC-46 replacements were assigned, it would put the installation at risk, particularly during another round of base closures.
MacArthur and Norcross succeeded in getting language inserted into a defense bill signed into law in 2015 that prevented the Air Force from retiring the KC-10s without assigning replacements. However, that prohibition was for only two years, making the Air Force’s decision to locate the new jets in New Jersey all the more important.
Despite the newer jets’ well-publicized problems, Norcross believes the newer tankers will be a significant upgrade.
While smaller than the KC-10s, the KC-46s will have more advanced refueling capabilities, including the ability to refuel two aircraft simultaneously and capacity to get refueled in flight itself, according to military officials.
Norcross also said delays in the production of the plane have resulted in some additional improvements in the technology.
“It’s been over a decade since it was first ordered. So it’s 2020 tech and the finest in the world,” he said. “When you speak to the pilots, they love the new airplane.”
Norcross also stressed that the expense of the Remote Vision System retrofit and other fixes were being incurred by Boeing, which has a fixed contract. “The bad news is it’s taken this long. The good news is it’s on Boeing’s dime,” he said.
Preparations are underway at the joint base for the arrival of the first KC-46s as early as fall 2021. More than $146 million is being invested on the base to prepare for the jets, including construction of an $82.5 million hangar and other improvements, including a fuselage trainer, boom operating training, and aerospace ground equipment storage building.
In addition to fighting for funding to keep the KC-10s flying, Norcross promised to continue battling the Trump administration’s plan to divert $3.8 billion in defense funding to build additional sections of the southern border wall. He described the move as a “bad strategic decision” that has put an additional strain on the Pentagon’s finances.
He said finding $70 million for the KC-10s would not be an issue if not for the president’s diversion.
“It would not be a problem if that had not happened. Everyone is looking for resources across the spectrum.”
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