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March Air Reserve Base chosen for new tankers — and could get protection against closure

March Air Reserve Base (Lvi56/WikiCommons)

March Air Reserve Base is the Air Force’s top choice to house the next generation of Air Force tanker planes, an assignment that could shield the historic base from closure and protect a major economic engine for the Inland Empire.

The Air Force announced Monday, Jan. 24, that March is the “preferred destination” for 12 KC-46A Pegasus tankers. The planes, which serve as airborne gas stations for other aircraft, will replace March’s KC-135 Stratotankers, which are part of its 452nd Air Mobility Wing.

A final basing decision will follow an environmental impact study that’s expected to be done in fall 2023, the Air Force said in a statement. Similar studies will be conducted at two alternate sites — Grissom Air Reserve Base in Indiana and Tinker Air Force Base in Oklahoma.

While the announcement leaves open the prospect of Grissom or Tinker getting the tankers, “they’ve never ever (made an announcement) like this and a base has not gotten” the aircraft, said Jamil Dada, board president of the March Field Air Museum and a local representative for the Air Mobility Command Civic Leader Program.

March, which is just south of Riverside and Moreno Valley, was one of six locations that made the final cut in spring to become the tankers’ new home. The others were Grissom, Tinker, Beale Air Force Base in Northern California, Joint Base Andrews-Naval Air Facility Washington in Maryland and Niagara Falls Air Reserve Base in New York.

The KC-46As were highly sought after because the base that gets them will have one less reason to be on the chopping block should the military do another round of base closures. March was an Air Force base until it was downsized to an air reserve base in 1993, costing the Inland region thousands of jobs.

Getting the new tankers “BRAC-proofs us for 40 years,” Dada said. BRAC stands for the Base Realignment and Closure process.

In an emailed statement Monday, Rep. Ken Calvert, R-Corona, said the Air Force’s decision “will ensure that March ARB’s contribution to our national security will continue with a new generation of tankers … Our region and the defense department have made critical investments in and around March ARB, putting it in an excellent position to play a vital role in the defense of our country well into the future.”

Tanker planes are used to refuel other military aircraft in mid-air, extending their time in flight and eliminating the need to refuel on the ground.

Made by Boeing and based on a commercial airliner design, the Pegasus’ refueling pole can dispense more fuel per minute than the KC-135 and the KC-46A is a more capable nighttime refueler, according to a Boeing video.

The KC-46A also features “robust defensive systems and cockpit armor protection,” the video added.

Dada, who has flown on board a KC-46A, said the Air Force ordered 278 of the new tankers, but only 50 have been delivered because Boeing is behind schedule amid problems with the Pegasus’s refueling system.

The KC-135s were supposed to be phased out this year, but will remain in use until all the KC-46s are delivered, Dada said, adding the KC-46As could have a $100 million impact for March with the need for new hangars and new equipment.

Southern California members of Congress from both parties united to bring the tankers to March. Last September, Rep. Ken Calvert, R-Corona, penned a letter to the secretary of the Air Force making the case for basing the KC-46As at March, citing its “optimal location” and community support.

Eleven House members signed the letter, including Rep. Mark Takano, D-Riverside, whose district includes March.

Calvert “has repeatedly communicated that March ARB would be ideally suited for the KC-46 because of its strategic location and the fact it is the only (Air Force Reserve) candidate location with reservists, guardsmen, and active duty from all branches of the military present on the base,” Jason Gagnon, the congress member’s spokesperson, said via email.

Takano said in an emailed statement that locating the tankers at March “would bring jobs to Riverside County and solidify the base’s standing as an unmatched military destination. March ARB is fully capable of hosting the tankers and has much to offer the Air Force in terms of continued mission excellence.”


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