First of the new tankers should be based at Fairchild AFB

I recently had the opportunity to visit Fairchild Air Force Base again, home to more than 4,000 active duty servicemembers and their families, National Guard, Reserve, and civilians, and the largest employer in Eastern Washington. Fairchild – which is located 10 miles southwest of Spokane – houses the 92nd and 141st Air Refueling Wings, which are responsible for supporting global military operations through air refueling, passenger and cargo airlift and aero-medical evacuation. Fairchild is also home to the Air Force Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape school, medical detachments, a weapons squadron and the Joint Personnel Recovery Agency.

Since it was founded 70 years ago, Fairchild has been a product of our community, and this year will be one of the most important in its history. Why? Because this is the year the Air Force will make a decision about where it will bed the next generation of tankers – the KC-46A.

Fairchild needs these new tankers because our current ones are woefully out-of-date. Our pilots are flying tankers which are more than 50 years old – so old their grandfathers flew them! As the Spokesman-Review recently reported, “The tankers are the one aircraft the military cannot go to war without…They allow jet fighters, supply planes and other aircraft to cover long distances – crucial with fewer overseas bases and operations far from the U.S. in places like Iraq and Afghanistan…Today, the Air Force is struggling to keep them in flying shape.”

In 2011 – after a ten-year delay – the Air Force finally awarded Boeing with a $35 billion contract to build the new tankers. The contract is for 179 tankers with the first delivery scheduled for Fiscal Year 2016. My goal is to make sure those tankers are based at Fairchild. Whether you consider the age of Fairchild’s current tankers or the base’s proximity to Asia, or whether you consider the high quality of Fairchild’s leadership, or the courage of its servicemembers and their families, no base in the entire country is better qualified to serve as the first home of the new tankers than Fairchild.

To bring them here, I am working with Fairchild’s leaders and other community leaders because the timeline is short. Right now, the Air Force’s Air Mobility Command is putting together its strategic base criteria for the tankers, and they expect to submit the criteria for approval in March. A month later, the Air Force will begin an enterprise-wide review of potential base candidates and make recommendations to the Secretary of the Air Force in early June.

Washington’s leaders are united in our determination to bring the new tankers to Fairchild. In December, I joined Governor Christine Gregoire, Sen. Patty Murray, Sen. Maria Cantwell, and every member of the Washington Congressional delegation in writing a letter to Air Force Secretary Michael Donley highlighting the exceptional assets Fairchild has to offer the new fleet. The leaders of our community – Republican and Democrat; private sector and public sector; at the federal, state, and local levels – are working together as a team to continue advocating for Fairchild.

The lynchpin of our teamwork is “Fairchild First” – a committee of regional leaders to protect and advocate for the base. In January, we came together to initiate a six-month strategy to bring those tankers to Fairchild. This strategy includes repeating our annual “Forward Fairchild” trip to the Pentagon. Every year since 2005, I’ve led this trip so that Eastern Washington leaders can meet with the Secretary of the Air Force and other high-ranking officials to discuss the importance of Fairchild and the new tankers and possible new missions. Our next trip is in April.

While I am focused on Fairchild – and especially bringing the new tankers there – I know that what makes Fairchild special – more than anything else – is our brave servicemen and women and their families. As the wife of a retired Navy pilot, I have a strong appreciation for the sacrifices these families make. That’s why, in 2009, I co-founded the Congressional Military Family Caucus. The Caucus – which has dozens of Members in both parties – draws attention to their needs and advocates for legislation on their behalf. In October 2011, we hosted our first Military Family Summit outside of Washington D.C., at Fairchild. It was a tremendous success that has already had a big impact.

As we advocate for Fairchild, I will never forget the men and women who make this base one of America’s best – the heroes on the front lines, and the quiet heroes at home. I will continue to do everything I can to make sure our heroes have all the support they need and have earned. America is a grateful nation. And we will continue to show our gratitude.

U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers represents Eastern Washington in Congress.