A high-stakes battle to bring as many as 36 refueling jets to MacDill Air Force Base has resulted in the rarest of accomplishments: a show of regional unity.
The stakes are high: Getting the latest generation of the massive jets stationed at MacDill would bring construction jobs to renovate or replace existing hangars and create an economic ripple effect.
Perhaps most importantly, a successful bid would dramatically strengthen MacDill's ability to survive future base realignments or closings.
"We think it will add to the strength of MacDill not only for the mission, but in helping Tampa continue to grow and add jobs in the area," said Carlos Del Castillo, one of a group of local leaders working to help the base win the competition for the tankers. "On top of that, we know the community is very supportive of MacDill and that is one of the key factors that is going to help the decision go in our favor."
Last month, the Air Force announced the criteria it will use to decide where to base the new KC-46A jet refueling tankers. The not-yet-built aircraft will replace the existing KC-135 Stratotanker jets first rolled out when Dwight Eisenhower was president.
Plenty of bases want the jets. Nearly 60 bases in 30 states are competing for the tankers; MacDill is one of seven bases in the running in Florida alone.
That competition has prompted the Tampa-area congressional contingent and local business and community leaders to join forces for an intense effort outlining MacDill's attributes to the Air Force.
On Wednesday afternoon, U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor announced the creation of the "MacDill Means Mobility" campaign, a major bipartisan push to raise MacDill's visibility in Washington and show Pentagon officials why MacDill should get the tankers.
Castor can cite plenty of advantages for MacDill.
The base, she said, already houses an existing fleet of Stratotankers and has a newly repaved runway and the requisite fuel lines. MacDill also has space to build additional hangars for the new planes, which are longer, taller and have a greater wingspan than the existing ones.
The Air Force wants to set up three initial bases for the planes — two operational bases and a training base.
According to Castor and Air Force documents, MacDill is only under consideration for the largest operational base and the training base, scheduled to get eight new jets, because it does not have an associated Air National Guard unit required for the smaller operational base.
The larger operational base and training unit would get the new planes in 2016, according to the Air Force, followed by the smaller operational base the following year.
Michael Dunn, president of the Air Force Association, an independent, professional military and aerospace education association, agrees MacDill is well-positioned to receive the new tankers under the largest operational base plan.
"There are several advantages at MacDill," Dunn said.
The first, he said, is that in addition to being the home of the 6th Air Mobility Wing and the 927 Air Refueling Wing, a reserve unit, MacDill also is home to U.S. Central Command and U.S. Special Operations Command.
Having both an active duty and reserve wing at the base bodes well, said Dunn, in the event the Air Force eventually decides to combine the units in a cost-saving measure.
The base also enjoys "good air space," he said, and has many fighter jet bases within a relatively short distance that need refueling jets.
Dunn also said that while the Air Force will stick by its requirement standards, the longstanding relationship between Air Force officials and U.S. Rep. C.W. "Bill'' Young, chairman of the influential House Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, could also be key.
Dunn discounted the Florida bases that are competing with MacDill.
Tyndall, Eglin and Hurlburt Air Force Bases are "firmly ensconced into the aircraft they have today," said Dunn, pointing out that all are fighter bases and have no refueling tankers. Cape Canaveral and Patrick Air Force bases are associated with the space command and also have no tankers.
But Dunn said MacDill would be hard-pressed to win the competition for the formal training unit.
Altus Air Force Base in Oklahoma is the most likely to receive the new tankers under the training base option, Dunn said, because "they have had training there for 15 years, so they have the student facilities and I think they are going to be naturally better positioned to remain the primary training base for the new tankers."
When it comes to lobbying the Air Force and Pentagon, Tampa is playing catch-up with other communities.
Castor said similar lobbying efforts already are under way by the communities surrounding Fairchild Air Force Base in Washington State and McConnell Air Force Base in Kansas. Both have significantly more of the KC-135s than the 16 housed at MacDill. McConnell has 48 and Fairchild has 30, according to the Air Force.
The Tampa contingent – including Castor, Mayor Bob Buckhorn, and Del Castillo, whose son Dimitri was an Army first lieutenant killed in Afghanistan last June — will arrive in Washington on June 6 for meetings with Kathleen Ferguson, deputy secretary of the Air Force for Installations.
That night, a "MacDill Means Mobility" reception, coordinated by the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce and presented by Celestar, will be held at the Florida House in Washington D.C.
Castor said the Air Force will whittle down the list of candidate bases to about 10 by this summer. Air Force officials will recommend the bases receiving the new planes by the end of this year, with a final decision due by the winter of 2013, Castor said.
Even if MacDill does not receive the new jets during the first phase, both Castor and Young have expressed confidence that the base will get some of the 414 planes being rolled out over the next two decades.