Officials ‘not on board’ with new Air Force plan

by The City Wire staff ( 4 views 

The Fort Smith-based 188th Fighter Wing will lose its 20 A-10 Thunderbolt fighter planes and move to an unmanned mission if Air Force leadership sticks to its guns.

The unwanted news came "late last week," according to a Wednesday (Nov. 14) press release from Fort Smith Communications Manager Tracy Winchell.

Winchell wrote that the "latest proposal…includes the return of two A-10 units to the Air National Guard."

"Michigan and Indiana are now slated to keep their A-10 aircraft, while the 188th Fighter Wing, Arkansas Air National Guard, would receive the unmanned mission," Winchell added.

It was learned in February that the Air Force proposed reductions of 3,900 active-duty, 5,100 Air National Guard and 900 Air Force Reserve positions.

Broad cuts in U.S. defense spending include the A-10 removal from the 188th Fighter Wing in Fort Smith. The loss of the fighter mission is tentatively 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.

Community officials and former 188th officials were concerned the lack of planes would result in deep job losses. The 188th now has about 1,000 personnel attached to the unit, with a little more than 300 in a full-time status. Initial estimates were that the full-time numbers could fall to around 55 with the new mission.

Arkansas’ Congressional delegation has fought to save the 188th from the mission change. Part of that included a “Defending our Defenders listening session” on Aug. 21 in the Arkansas Best Corp. Performing Arts Center at the Fort Smith Convention Center.

The event welcomed U.S. Rep. Randy Forbes, R-Va., who serves as chairman of the House Armed Services subcommittee on Readiness. U.S. Rep. Steve Womack, R-Rogers, in conjunction with U.S. Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark., sponsored the event.

During a Wednesday morning conference call, the Congressional delegation "made it perfectly clear that they are not on board with this plan and will not support anything less than keeping A-10s on the ramp in Fort Smith, Arkansas," Winchell said, adding that the delegation and community council "will continue to provide Air Force leadership with concrete data proving the 188th is a vital asset to our national defense and our Congressional delegation will continue to insist to the Air Force and to the Secretary of Defense that they provide data showing why it makes sense" to remove the A-10 mission.

Multiple attempts throughout the year from members of Congress to the Air Force requesting data behind the rationale have gone unanswered, according to Winchell. "Despite promises all the way up the chain to the Secretary of Defense, members of the Arkansas delegation have not received any of the substantiating information they’ve requested, nor have members of Congress on key defense committees from other states."

Winchell continued: "Currently, members of the Congressional delegation are requesting data that details the unit’s performance in Afghanistan, some of which may be classified. The community council will release as much of the white paper being prepared for top Air Force leadership as is permitted under operational security restrictions."

As of Wednesday morning, the Arkansas Congressional delegation revealed they had not "seen the current proposal in written form," Winchell added, but "the (188th) steering committee fully expects that the proposal will be made public as early as today, when Air Force leadership addresses the National Guard Bureau Joint Senior Leaders conference."