Gray, overcast days are tough on the Fort Smith regional economy.
The weather was nasty when Whirlpool announced it would close its Fort Smith plant, and the weather was equally dreary on Friday (Feb. 3) when it was learned the 188th Fighter Wing is likely to lose its 21 A-10s as part of deep cuts to the U.S. defense budget.
The Air Force “re-missioning” plan released Friday calls for the 188th Fighter Wing in Fort Smith to lose its 20 A-10 aircraft, with the unit to convert to operating the unmanned Predator aircraft.
Moving the A-10’s out of Fort Smith is expected in fiscal year 2013. The unit employs about 350 full-time personnel, with about 1,000 on the base once a month for training.
Brig. Gen. Travis Balch, chief of staff for the Arkansas Air National Guard, held a press conference at the 188th base Friday afternoon. He opened his remarks with a message that the planned change in mission could have a long-term benefit for the 188th and Fort Smith.
“The very fact that we have a mission here in Fort Smith is something to be excited about,” Balch told the gathered media, noting that all 50 states are losing something under the Air Force plan.
The Air Force plan could be altered by Congress. Balch said Friday’s announcement by the Air Force “is just the beginning of the process.”
Members of Arkansas’ Congressional delegation want more info on the decision. They’ve asked for hearings to learn more about the Air Force force restructuring plan.
“We are writing to leaders of the Senate and House Armed Services Committees asking for immediate hearings on these decisions and asking the Secretary of the Air Force for greater transparency regarding the methods used to make these determinations,” U.S. Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark., said in a statement.
Balch said the advanced version of the unmanned Predator represents an “emerging mission” in the Air Force that could be based in Fort Smith “for a long time.” The advanced version of the Predator is a long-endurance, high-flying platform often known as a “hunter/killer” for its ability to track and eliminate high-ranking members of terrorist organizations around the globe.
“With that (new mission) comes a lot of excitement and a lot of unknowns,” Balch said.
The biggest unknown is the potential loss of jobs. The A-10 mission employs about 350 full-time, with about 1,000 during a drill weekend. But a majority of those jobs are geared around supporting the aircraft. The predator, according to Balch, is not likely to be based at Fort Smith — especially without changes in Federal Aviation Administration rules dealing with unmanned aircraft flying in commercial (civilian) airspace. Only the pilots who remotely fly the aircraft and technicians necessary for equipment support would be at the base.
Balch said personnel figures will not be available until early March.
However, Balch said Major Gen. William Wofford, the adjutant general of the Arkansas National Guard, is “committed to the force structure” in Fort Smith and would possibly “move other units” to the 188th base if the personnel “footprint” becomes smaller with the Predator mission.
Balch also said Guard leaders in Arkansas will continue to fight for the A-10 mission. If the A-10 mission is retained, Guard leaders will look at bringing an F-35 mission to the base to follow the planned 2020 retirement of the A-10. If the A-10 mission is lost and the 188th base is transitioned to handle an unmanned aircraft mission, Arkansas Guard leaders will re-evaluate the F-35 strategy, Balch said.
It was first announced Nov. 22 that the 188th Fighter Wing based at the Fort Smith Regional Airport may be one of the many military cuts possibly to result from Congressional failure to reach a deficit-cutting agreement.
“The force reductions proposed in the Air Force FY13 budget request were developed in response to new DoD strategic guidance, informed by reduced funding, and shaped by analysis to ensure that the Total Force will continue to fulfill the Air Force’s surge requirements and meet continuing rotational demand,” noted the detailed Air Force report. “We will ensure that the Reserve Component remains engaged and relevant as the Active Component maintains the recruiting, training, and operational seasoning base required to sustain the Total Force into the future.”
Concern about the 188th’s future comes four years after the unit converted from the F-16 fighter jet to the A-10 ground support aircraft. Conversion to the A-10 was the product of a last minute reversal of a decision to close the 188th. During May 2005, the Base Realignment and Closure Commission was faced with 834 closings or realignment recommendations from the Department of Defense.
STATEMENT FROM U.S. SEN. MARK PRYOR, D-ARK.
In 2005, the Fort Smith community and the Arkansas Congressional delegation showed the BRAC commission the value and versatility of the 188th Fighter Wing. We won this hard-fought victory. The 188th went on to prove in Iraq and Afghanistan that it could complete any mission with distinction.
After reviewing the Air Force’s proposed changes, I am concerned about plans for the future. I, along with the Fort Smith community and the Arkansas Congressional delegation, will fight tooth and nail to ensure the Air Force maintains a viable mission to our national defense in Fort Smith, Arkansas. I also have concerns about cutting the C-130 AMP program. The Air Force needs to explain why this decision makes economic and strategic sense.
STATEMENT FROM U.S. SEN. JOHN BOOZMAN, R-ARK.
“Arkansas’s Air National Guard is a critical component to our state and to our national defense. These units have always stepped up to provide support for missions at home and abroad. I am concerned about the standards the Secretary of the Air Force used to make these decisions about the future Air Force structure in Arkansas. For example, by almost any criteria, the 188th always proves to be the most cost effective A-10 air base with a track record of success. This is a poor decision for Arkansas and our nation as a whole. While this proposal leaves a lot of unanswered questions, there is one thing I do know, the Arkansas Congressional delegation will fight to secure an enduring role for Arkansas’s Air Guard as a key part of the Air Force’s future structure and capabilities. We are writing to leaders of the Senate and House Armed Services Committees asking for immediate hearings on these decisions and asking the Secretary of the Air Force for greater transparency regarding the methods used to make these determinations.”
STATEMENT FROM U.S. REP. STEVE WOMACK, R-ROGERS
“My first priority is to argue on behalf of the A10 mission because we know—and can prove—its cost effectiveness. That said, if the Air Force is committed to this decision, it is wise to fight for a relevant, sustainable, and state-of-the-art mission for the Fort Smith facility — like the Predator/Reaper — to mitigate the job loss to our region. I am committed to working with the Air Force and the Arkansas Military Department to ensure all possible additional force structure is pursued for Fort Smith.
“The reality is that the Defense Department is cutting nearly a half-trillion dollars over the next decade and with additional cuts looming through sequester, and the prospect for future BRACs (Base Realignment and Closure), enormous pressure is coming down on our national defense structure.
“Arkansas is not alone in this discussion. Another three dozen states are fighting for similar consideration. Against any metric, we believe we make a strong case for our situation.”
STATEMENT FROM U.S. REP. MIKE ROSS, D-PRESCOTT
The 188th Fighter Wing of the Arkansas National Guard has always proven itself to be of great value to the Air Force. I am concerned about changes the Air Force has proposed as I want to ensure there are no negative impacts to our troops, the Fort Smith region, the State of Arkansas, or our national security. My staff has attended meetings in Fort Smith on this issue and we will keep fighting to ensure a successful future for the 188th Fighter Wing in Fort Smith. I am working with our entire Arkansas Congressional delegation and the Air Force to reach the best outcome possible.
PRESS RELEASE FROM THE ARKANSAS NATIONAL GUARD
The Arkansas National Guard was informed today that the Air Force proposal to re-structure the force includes the 188th Fighter Wing’s transition from the A-10 Thunderbolt II to a remotely piloted aircraft mission in Fiscal Year 2013.
Remotely piloted aircraft are the newest intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance aerial platforms in the Air Force inventory, used extensively the past ten years to support the war efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The 189th Airlift Wing is also included in the proposal with the retirement of one of its nine C-130H aircraft in fiscal year 2017. The Air Force proposal is a part of the President’s budget which is scheduled to be presented to Congress Feb. 13.
Potential changes in the affected units’ manpower have not been announced by the Department of Defense at this time.
“Undoubtedly some of our Airmen may be disappointed by the announcement, but what is important now is that we remain focused and maintain force structure, readiness and professionalism of the Guard to meet the future needs of the state and nation,” said Maj. Gen. William D. Wofford, the adjutant general of Arkansas.
Army budget and force structure changes are not projected to impact Arkansas Army National Guard units in the near future.
The announcement comes on the heels of the January 12 release of the Defense Strategic Guidance that outlined the Department of Defense’s plan to find $487 billion in savings over the next 10 years.
The 188th Fighter Wing is scheduled to deploy to Afghanistan this spring to provide close air support in support of Operation Enduring Freedom. The 188th recently returned from the first combat deployment of its A10 fleet in 2010.
The wing is currently authorized approximately 1,000 airmen, with a full-time staff of approximately 350 with 21 assigned A-10 aircraft.
The Arkansas Air National Guard has had a presence in Fort Smith since the 1950s, and have flown several fighter aircraft, including the F-16 Fighting Falcon, until the Base Realignment and Closure Commission mandated the switch to the A-10 airframe in 2006.
“Fort Smith remains important to the future of the Arkansas National Guard, and we plan to make full use of the demographics and existing infrastructure there,” said Wofford. “We will continue to pursue missions and opportunities with the 188th, and at the Fort Smith facilities.”
The 189th Airlift Wing is located at the Little Rock Air Force Base, and is the primary training hub for legacy C-130 aircraft operations. The wing trained nearly 400 students and flew more than 4,400 hours in nine C-130 H model aircraft in fiscal year 2011.
During the past year, both Air Guard units were integral in the Arkansas Guard’s 73 domestic missions within the state. The 189th supported winter response missions in Pulaski County, tornado response in Faulkner County and flood response missions.
The 188th also supported winter weather operations in northwest Arkansas as well as deploying its Disaster Relief Beddown System (DRBS) to southeast Arkansas after severe flooding hit the region. The DRBS allowed the Arkansas Guard to house, feed and take care of troops sent in to communities hit with record flooding in eastern Arkansas.
“Even with these proposed changes, the Arkansas Army and Air National Guard will remain a strong and ready force,” said Wofford. “We are dedicated to our Airmen, families and employers, and committed to addressing the concerns of the affected service members and their families.”