story and photos by Michael Tilley
Chief of Staff of the Air Force General Mark Welsh III, left little room for doubt Friday (Jan. 18) as to the future of the A-10 mission with the Fort Smith-based 188th Fighter Wing: There isn’t a future.
The four-star general spent much of Friday in Fort Smith touring 188th facilities, speaking to 188th personnel, Fort Smith officials and visiting with U.S. Sens. Mark Pryor, D-Ark.; John Boozman, R-Ark.; and U.S. Reps. Tom Cotton, R-Dardanelle; and Steve Womack, R-Rogers.
It has been in the works for several months that the 188th would lose the A-10, an airplane platform first deployed in the late 1970s that is now used primarily for close-air support of troops on the ground. The 188th has had numerous overseas missions in recent years, including two deployments to Afghanistan.
Broad cuts in U.S. defense spending – possibly up to $500 billion over 10 years – include the removal of the 20 A-10 Thunderbolt fighter planes 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.
A recent compromise, which was included in the National Defense Authorization Act, retained A-10 units in Michigan and Indiana, but not with the Fort Smith-based 188th. Arkansas officials say the Air Force decision to reduce A-10 units was not based “on a detailed analysis of cost-efficiency.”
Welsh said during a mid-afternoon press conference that he was impressed with the unit and the community support of the unit, but was quick to note there are “communities like this all around the country.”
He said the focus remains on transitioning the unit to a drone mission, which he said would result in a “small decrease” in the number of Air Force personnel needed in Fort Smith. However, a drone mission keeps a unit active in Fort Smith.
“The intent is not for the unit to go away,” Welsh stressed, adding that the decrease in personnel may be handled through attrition.
Further, he said, using drones represents a “growing mission” within the Air Force.
“We’re committed to it for the future,” Welsh said.
A media question challenged Welsh on why the A-10s were being pulled from the 188th when the unit has performed better and has been more combat ready than other A-10 units. Welsh rejected the premise that the 188th is an overall more proficient unit than other active duty or guard units.
“I’m not sure all the facts are on the table in that discussion,” Welsh responded.
Arkansas’ Congressional delegation has repeatedly asked Pentagon officials, to include U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, for the analysis used in selecting which unit will lose the A-10 platform. The requests have, to date, been ignored.
Welsh said “strategic” factors were part of the decision. With the A-10 a “single mission capable” aircraft, Welsh said it was one of the first to be considered for cuts. When asked about the political dynamic of a “mission in each state,” Welsh admitted that there was a political factor in the decision to remove A-10s from the 188th.
A Jan. 15 post on airforce-magazine.com, the online journal of the Air Force Association, cited Col. Michael Norton as saying that retaining a “flying mission in each state was the key deciding factor in allocating cuts across the Total Force A-10 fleet in Fiscal 2013.” Norton is the Air National Guard programs chief in the Pentagon.
But in noting that, Welsh again stressed that the 188th will retain a drone mission, and if the unit transitions to a recon wing, it will likely have an important mission.
“That’s (drone and recon aircraft) in the fight every single day all over the world,” the general explained.
Ironically, the 188th was first organized in 1953 as the 184th Tactical Reconnaissance Squadron.
Boozman, Cotton, Pryor and Womack conducted a brief press conference while Welsh boarded his Gulfstream G5 for departure.
‘LOOK TOWARD THE FUTURE’
Womack, whose Congressional District includes the 188th base, acknowledged that plans to remove the A-10 did not change as a result of Welsh’s visit. Womack, who recently landed a coveted spot on the House Appropriations Subcommittee that handles defense spending, said his goal was to “salvage the best possible circumstance” from the proposed Air Force changes.
Pryor seemed resigned to the fact the A-10 mission is lost.
“We are all compelled to find a great and enduring mission for the 188th,” Pryor said, adding that “the question is do we continue to fight for the A-10 or fight for future missions?”
“My inclination is to look toward the future,” he said.
Womack agreed with Pryor, saying the goal now should be to “pursue a future mission” and to “build as much force structure here in Fort Smith” as possible.
As to when the A-10s may fly away for the last time, Boozman and Womack said the timeline depends on what happens to the “sequestration” issue that continues to loom over Congress and the Pentagon. Without a budget deal approved by Congress and the White House that addresses deficit reduction, the U.S. defense budget could face another $500 billion in cuts.
According to the 188th website, the unit began in October 1953 as the 184th Tactical Reconnaissance Squadron.
The unit has been home to nine aircraft types, beginning with the RB-26, a twin-engine modified bomber. The unit converted in 1956 to the RF-80, a jet aircraft, when the unit was assigned a daylight reconnaissance mission.
The RF-84F arrived in 1957, and was replaced in 1970 by the RF-101 (Voodoo).
In 1972 the unit’s recon mission ended with the arrival of the F-100 Super Sabre. The unit was recast as the 188th Tactical Fighter Group. In 1979, the “Flying Razorbacks” handle was adopted by the 188th when it received the F-4C Phantom.
In 1988 the F-16A Fighting Falcon replaced the F-4C, and in 2000 the F-16s were upgraded to the F-16 A variant.
A last-minute decision by the Base Realignment and Closure Committee in 2005 replaced the F-16 with the A-10. On April 14, 2007, the 188th received its first A-10.