BY MARK MUCKENFUSS
STAFF WRITER
mmuckenfuss@pe.com

Published: 21 June 2012 08:06 PM

Local officials say March Air Reserve Base is well positioned to receive a new generation of air refueling tankers and expect the base will be approved for that mission in the next two years.

However, with no guarantee of that approval, they are continuing to lobby and meet with congressional representatives to keep March a vital part of not only the military but of the Inland economy, they say.

Securing some of the 179 KC-46A tankers scheduled to be deployed over the next two decades could help ensure March’s ongoing existence in the face of base reductions.

In recent weeks, the Air Force announced guidelines for determining which bases would get the planes. March ARB is on a second-tier list of those being considered.

March has 12 of the KC-135 refueling tankers, all of which are more than 50 years old. The planes, which also can transport cargo, personnel and medical patients, are regularly refurbished and upgraded. Their refueling missions are among the base’s key responsibilities, which also include medical evacuation and airlift missions with the base’s nine C-17s, and a Predator drone training and combat mission operated by the Air National Guard.

Officials learned a hard lesson two decades ago when the Pentagon decided to shut Norton Air Force Base in San Bernardino and to shrink March Air Force Base and make it a reserve facility. In the years since, March has added planes and missions — several involving other branches of the military — to the base. Local leaders have made it their business to be actively involved in promoting the base whenever there is a question of cuts or additions to the military.

“We need to be making sure our base is in the minds of the administrators,” said Jamil Dada, a Riverside business leader and president of the March Field Air Museum’s board of directors. “It takes a lot of lobbying and advocacy.”

Lobbying For Tankers

In recent months, Dada and other business and community leaders have been meeting with Reps. Ken Calvert, R-Corona, and Buck McKeon, R-Santa Clarita, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, as well as California Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, both Democrats. They are reminding Washington officials that March has been flying KC-135s, the plane the new tanker will be replacing, for years. The base is due to lose one of its KC-135s as a result of the last round of military reductions.

Staffers for Calvert and other members of Congress were briefed by U.S. Air Force officials last month on plans to bring the new tankers into operation, Calvert spokeswoman Rebecca Rudman said. Aides to the congressman also met with the Air Force’s congressional liaison to gather more information so that March proponents can make the best possible argument to have tankers based there, she said.

The Air Force plans to name two KC-46A training bases in the short term, one led by active duty, the other by the Air National Guard. Rudman said March meets at least part of the criteria for a National Guard-led mission — it has the necessary 7,000 feet of runway space. She said Air Force officials also will look at encroachment issues as they weigh March’s merits against that of other bases.

She said Calvert is working with the March Joint Powers Authority and area leaders to ensure adequate space is maintained around the base.

“The community is supportive, so we think it’s going to do well,” Rudman said.

She said the Air Force is expected to settle on a list of “preferred candidates” for the first round of tanker allocations next spring, with final base announcements coming in spring 2014.

Community Support

In the meantime, there is a base realignment and closure — BRAC — initiative to contend with.

BRAC is a periodic strategy to cut the military costs and increase efficiency. In January, President Barack Obama ordered a new round of closures to coincide with the drawdown of forces and eventual end to the war in Afghanistan.

“There is a term called BRAC-proofing a base, and that is pretty much what we’re trying to do,” said Dada.

In addition to pitching the base as a recipient of the KC-46A, as well as the next generation of unmanned drones, Inland leaders also are working to make sure March isn’t eliminated as a base altogether. Most, including retired Brig. Gen. Stan Brown, who was once in charge of March, express confidence that outright closure of the base is not likely.

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