News Analysis: Race to bring the MC-12W has many variables

Last month, the Air Force named Robins Air Force Base as a potential home for the MC-12W, a small intelligence-gathering aircraft program. The base will compete against five other Air Force installations for the program. If Robins is selected, it will welcome more than 500 airmen through its gates, about an 8 percent increase from its current number.

For the next 10 months, Robins and the surrounding area will be under evaluation.

“As a defense community, we need to make sure ... that we’re on task,” said Mary Therese Tebbe, the executive director of the 21st Century Partnership, a community-support organization for the base.

For the right to house as many as 37 MC-12W aircraft, Robins will compete with Altus Air Force Base in Oklahoma, Beale Air Force Base in California, Key Field Air Guard Station in Mississippi, Langley Air Force Base in Virginia and Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri.

“Think of it this way,” Tebbe said. “All of these bases that have been selected as the final six, all of them have something fabulous to offer.”

To land the MC-12W, every feature of each base will be graded. The final judgment will be based on a complex list of criteria, based on a 100-point scale. In March 2011, the Air Force will choose a winner.

Two issues that have frightened local officials — air quality and encroachment of development around the base’s airfield — are in fact relatively minor on the scale.

For years, local officials have invested in air quality measures to contain pollution with an eye toward avoiding the Environmental Protection Agency’s non-attainment list, which marks geographic areas with unacceptably high levels of particulate, carbon monoxide, lead, nitrogen oxide and sulfur pollution.

On the encroachment front, Houston and Bibb counties are currently negotiating to pool municipal dollars — $100,000 each fiscal year from both — with state and federal dollars to buy and clear homes north of Robins.

Yet the base’s air quality will only count for one point and encroachment will count for three.

By comparison, the Middle Georgia weather will count for nine points of the final grade.

Three-fourths of the criteria will look at the Warner Robins airspace (35 points) and the capacity of the base to facilitate the program and train its pilots and crews (40 points).

In regards to airspace, the 100-mile buffer from Robins to Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport in Atlanta provides a clear sky for the MC-12W.

“Do we have the capacity? Absolutely,” said retired Maj. Gen. Rick Goddard, the former commander of the Warner Robins Air Logistics Center. “We certainly have the capacity to bed down (the MC-12W).”

Goddard is optimistic, in part, because of the facilities that exist in the northern area of the base. When several B-1 bombers left the installation in 2002, they left several empty hangars.

The state of Georgia owns the facilities abandoned by the B-1 aircraft.

Could those facilities be used to support the MC-12W program? Just how much will the state and local municipalities invest in trying to bring the MC-12W to Robins?

Local and state government officials don’t have to look far in the past to find a cautionary tale.

In recent weeks, questions have surrounded the future of the C-27J training program at Robins. The base opened a training facility for the aircraft in December with hopes that more C-27J aircraft, with an operational mission, would follow.

The C-27J flight simulator was built with more than a half-million dollars contributed by local Middle Georgia municipalities and the state.

Last month, however, the Air Force told the base that it would not receive any of the first 24 aircraft in the C-27J program.