U.S. Rep. Steve Womack, R-Rogers, says Arkansas’ Congressional delegation and community leaders in the Fort Smith area will have to work hard to stop the “pure political decisions” behind an Air Force restructuring plan that will dramatically change the mission of the Fort Smith-based 188th Fighter Wing.
Womack is also hoping a change in his House committee membership will give Arkansas and the 188th more leverage in Defense Department discussions.
Broad cuts in U.S. defense spending include the removal of the 20 A-10 Thunderbolt fighter plans from the 188th Fighter Wing in Fort Smith. The unit has almost 1,000 full- and part-time employees. The loss of the fighter mission is scheduled to be replaced with the unmanned Predator drone. The drones and intelligence specialists needed to analyze drone-driven data would not be based in Fort Smith.
Members of Arkansas’ Congressional Delegation – U.S. Sens. John Boozman, R-Ark., and Mark Pryor, D-Ark.; and U.S. Reps. Rick Crawford, Tim Griffin, Mike Ross and Steve Womack – have repeatedly sought answers from U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta and Air Force generals on the data used to make the decision to cut the A-10’s out of the 188th mission. The most recent letter was sent Nov. 27 to Gen. Mark Welsh III, chief of staff of the U.S. Air Force.
Community officials and the Congressional delegation have argued that the unit, which is just a few minutes from a large firing range at Fort Chaffee, is the most cost-effective A-10 unit in the Air Force.
WHITE HOUSE VETO THREAT
U.S. Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., is the lead sponsor on the National Defense Authorization Act for FY 2013 (S 3254), which would avoid the restructuring plan sought by the administration of President Barack Obama. Specifically, the bill would limit how much money the Air Force could use to retire or transfer air units, and would create a commission to study planned Air Force changes. Both items would likely delay the changes to the 188th.
On Friday (Nov. 30) the White House said senior advisors would encourage Obama to veto S 3254 if it survives a House vote and makes it to the President’s desk.
“The Administration strongly objects to Title XVII, which would place limitations on funding to be used to divest, retire, or transfer units of the Air National Guard or Air Force Reserve, in addition to creating a commission to study the appropriate makeup of the Air Force,” noted a Statement of Administration Policy issued Friday by the White House. “These provisions would force DOD to operate, sustain, and maintain aircraft that are in excess to national security requirements, as defined by the new defense strategy, and are not affordable in an austere budget environment. They also would impair the ability of the Secretary to manage the Department and, by retaining large numbers of under-resourced aircraft in the fleet in today's fiscally constrained environment, could contribute to a hollow force.”
‘CHALLENGE AHEAD OF US’
Womack said the pressure from the White House and Defense Department officials to pursue political placement of military units and equipment is greater than pragmatic placement.
“We’ve got a challenge ahead of us,” Womack said about stopping the Air Force plan. “They are hellbent to see it through.”
Part of that challenge includes Womack’s pursuit of filling a vacancy to soon appear on the U.S. House Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense. U.S. Rep. Jerry Lewis, a Republican from California is retiring and Womack has requested to be placed on the subcommittee. Because he doesn’t have as much seniority as other Republican House members, Womack admitted he is a “longshot” to land “the very coveted” opening on the subcommittee.
188TH STEERING COMMITTEE RESPONSE
Also on Friday the 188th steering committee of the 188th/Fort Chaffee Community Council said issued a statement saying it was “disappointed” in the White House statement.
“The steering committee and the Arkansas Delegation are confident that the bipartisan panel called for in the Senate Defense Authorization Bill would remove politics from the Air Force recommendations to remove A-10s from the 188th Fighter Wing, Arkansas Air National Guard,” noted the statement. “Once politics are removed, and objective metrics are used to make force structure decisions, the Flying Razorbacks are among the top fighter wings in the nation. As Senator Pryor has tersely stated, the President of the United States is wrong on this matter.”
Continuing, the committee statement explained: “The threatened veto merely underscores the 188th steering committee’s frustration with the Air Force and the Pentagon. Air Force representatives say publicly this force structure change is about cost savings when they can’t even show us cost savings. Privately they tell our Congressional delegation staffers this move is about ensuring one flying wing per state, regardless of the unit’s ability to contribute – in a cost-effective manner – to the national defense.”