The Air Force should be rushing to make the Niagara Falls Air Reserve Station the home for its next generation of refueling aircraft. The stakes are high. Winning the assignment would help guarantee the existence of the base for years to come, protecting it from the vagaries of politics and threats from base closing commissions.
The Air Force is examining its Reserve units nationwide for an important mission especially suited to the Falls: playing host to the new KC-46A Pegasus tankers, jets that are used to refuel other aircraft in flight.
It is a job local base personnel could perform expertly and cost-efficiently. Some infrastructure for the mission is already in place, including equipment for storing and dispensing fuel and the necessary reinforced runway and ramp. It is in place because the 107th Airlift Wing of the Air National Guard used to fly a refueling mission with KC-135R aircraft. The 107th’s new mission is controlling MQ-9 Reaper drones. As drones become ever more important to the Air Force, that 21st century mission should protect the 107th from downsizing.
The Falls base is also home to the 914th Airlift Wing of the Air Force Reserve. Members of both units are well-trained, highly motivated and efficient. In addition, the Falls base’s strategic location along the border will make it ideal to be one of the three operating bases that will be needed for the KC-46A.
The Air Force has already selected the active-duty and Air Guard bases. The Falls base is one of 18 stations under consideration as the Reserve host. The 18 will be whittled down to five for the next round of the competition.
In addition to its first-rate personnel, infrastructure and location, the Falls has one more factor in its favor: the bipartisan support of the Western New York congressional delegation.
Sens. Charles E. Schumer and Kirsten E. Gillibrand, both D-N.Y., along with Reps. Chris Collins, R-Clarence, and Brian Higgins, D-N.Y., have sent a letter to the Air Force chief of staff and the chief of the Air Force Reserve detailing the advantages of the Niagara Falls station. They pointed out that the Air Force will have to spend $150 million to convert Pease into a tanker base, far more than would have to be spent at Niagara Falls.
The base, with its hundreds of jobs, is a key piece of the local economy. Getting a new mission for its reservists is more critical than ever in light of constant concern over a possible new round of base closure recommendations.
By almost any measure, Niagara Falls is a good fit for the new tankers.