Lt. Gen. L. Scott Rice, director of the Air National Guard, toured Guard facilities in central Arkansas, Fort Smith and traveled to Northwest Arkansas to meet with execs at Wal-Mart Stores and Tyson Foods.
He wrapped up his three-day tour Friday (March 31) in Fort Smith with a visit to the 188th Wing and a luncheon hosted by the Fort Smith Regional Chamber of Commerce.
Rice, a command pilot with more than 4,300 flight hours, manages the Pentagon office responsible for more than 105,500 Guard members and civilians in more than 90 wings and 175 units at 213 locations in the 50 States, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, Guam and the Virgin Islands, according to his Air Force biography.
On Wednesday Rice attended the graduation of the first class at the Air National Guard Cyber Skills Validation Course at Little Rock Air Force Base. He also received a briefing on the 189th Airlift Wing Mission, traveled on a C-130H to view select ranges and facilities, and attended a luncheon with the Little Rock Community Council, according to a statement from the office of U.S. Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark.
Rice held an Airmen’s Call at the 189th Airlift Wing with about 450 members of the wing.
“Two things stand out in our visit here. First, the units here in Arkansas clearly show why they are amongst the best. Highly specialized, highly trained professional forces is what we have here in the state. Second, the overwhelming support the communities show for their Air Guard is unmatched,” Rice noted in a statement.
With Boozman and U.S. Rep. Steve Womack, R-Rogers, serving as tour guides, Rice traveled to Northwest Arkansas. While that region does not have an Air Guard facility, it does have a military connection, Womack said.
“He (Rice) wanted to talk to Wal-Mart about their veterans hiring. He wanted to talk to Tyson about their logistics chain because they provide a lot of product for the Department of Defense,” Womack explained.
Another part of that connection is the Air Force Reserve Officer Training Corps program at the University of Arkansas. Rice was able to spend some quality time with program cadets, Womack said.
“Those cadets will not get an opportunity to have a 3-star (general) in a leadership position like that talk to them very often,” Womack added.
Womack also said the 188th may be based in Fort Smith, but it has an impact on its neighbors to the north.
“We plugged him in to what we felt like would be a really good indicator of the region where this 188th happens to operate,” Womack told Talk Business & Politics in explaining what he viewed as an added benefit for Rice to see what is happening in Northwest Arkansas.
Rice is the first Air Guard director to visit the 188th since its transformation from a manned flight mission to a remotely piloted aircraft – drone – unit. Broad cuts in U.S. defense spending included the removal of 20 A-10 fighter planes from the 188th Fighter Wing in Fort Smith. It was announced in 2012 that the unit’s mission would change to an intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) mission. The unit converted to the new mission in June 2014.
“We’re doing things here that are unique for the entire country,” Boozman said Friday when asked if Rice’s visit helps the 188th and state avoid being on the wrong end of any future Base Realignment and Closure cycle. “Because they are doing such a great job, I think that the mission, and the budget is very secure. And certainly the delegation is going to be working very hard to make sure that is the case.”
Boozman also said that applies to the 189th Airlift Wing at the Little Rock Air Force Base in Jacksonville because of the unique training for crews of the C-130 transport plane.
MORE ‘FORCE STRUCTURE’
Womack said his focus Friday was to show Rice that the Air Force should do more in the Fort Smith area.
“And then to come down here today to see exactly what is going on with the missions of the 188th, and to kind of reinforce the sale of what we have been telling him. Senator Boozman and I have been strong advocates for getting more force structure into this region, for a lot of reasons. We’ve got an airspace that we ought to take advantage of. Proximity to places like Fort Chaffee. We’ve got a low cost of living here. We’ve got the Fort Smith airfield, the established reputation of the 188th, a supportive community. I mean, you can’t find a more opportunistic place for more force structure for the Air Guard,” Womack said.
The Air Guard could soon have more money. President Donald Trump has proposed an estimated $60 billion increase for the Department of Defense budget. Rice told Talk Business & Politics that much of what the Air Guard might receive from the budget bump will be to support units with manned flying missions.
“As the Air Force spreads that money out, a piece of it all goes to the three components within the Air Force; the Reserves, the Active Duty and the Guard. And we’re receiving a piece of that, and we’re going to increase some of our full-time manning, and particularly in maintenance of our aircraft. … We’re going to add more bodies to the flight line to keep those older aircraft flying.”