What is happening with the Fort Smith-based 188th Fighter Wing?
That's a question Tracy Winchell, communications manager for the city of Fort Smith, has been hearing a lot lately.
What the average citizen may not know is that Winchell and various members of the Arkansas Congressional Delegation (around 20-25, Winchell states) meet via conference call every Wednesday morning to discuss developments regarding the 188th.
"We've started getting a lot of questions from people wondering what's going on since there hasn't been anything in the news a long time," Winchell said.
But Winchell hopes to change that now with weekly updates to the Save the Flying Razorbacks Facebook Page, so that "we can help them (deployed members of the 188th) focus on the mission by providing them information, and let them know that even when there's not enough news to give, we're still talking about this."
Winchell continued: "We want them to know that there is still a lot of waiting, but here's what is happening. If we can give them what we know every week, so they can focus on their mission and not get hurt, we need to be doing that."
CONFERENCE CALL DEVELOPMENTS
Latest developments, Winchell wrote in the Facebook post, include House-approved Defense Appropriations for Fiscal Year 2013 (funding Department of Defense programs). Funds were also added "to offset multiple Defense committee orders to leave the Air Guard Units ALONE until Congress has PROOF that the recommendations are appropriate, efficient, and effective," Winchell notes.
As for the Senate, they have "NOT yet taken up the Defense AUTHORIZATION bill," the post reads, "but it's ready to go to the Senate floor for a full vote. It doesn't look likely that this bill will be considered prior to the August recess. AT BEST, this bill will be scheduled for a full vote sometime in mid-September. Also, the Senate has yet to get a markup of its APPROPRIATIONS bill."
Winchell calls the bills in queue for FY 2013 "very favorable" to the 188th Fighter Wing and to "protecting A-10s in the near term."
Winchell's Facebook update continued: "Congressional staffers are optimistic that the language in the FY 13 bills on both sides of Congress and all of the key committees--Appropriations and Authorization bills--will provide an opportunity to stop the Air Force from making ANY changes until the recommendations have been more fully studied."
Winchell said the purpose of the Facebook Updates is to "provide a level of detail for a military person or family, who typically understands what a continuing resolution is, and what a piece of legislation will mean for their paycheck, job, and future." As a result, some of the lingo may be "down in the weeds, but if the public has any questions, I welcome them to contact me."
DEFENDING OUR DEFENDERS
On Wednesday (July 25), Winchell told The City Wire "people for the 188th" needed to "fill the auditorium" for the upcoming Defending Our Defenders Listening Session on Aug. 21.
The event will welcome 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., is sponsoring the event and will make a formal announcement on Monday, Winchell said.
The event will take place at the Arkansas Best Performing Arts Center in the Fort Smith Convention Center.
"We've got to fill that house," Winchell said. "And we've got to give Forbes and his colleagues goosebumps no matter how hot it is. If we can get them on our side, we'll have made some champions."
In March, The City Wire reported that the Air Force had 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 removal of the 20 A-10 Thunderbolt fighter planes from the 188th Fighter Wing in Fort Smith. 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.
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.
However, the Air Force changes 188th authorized personnel from 972 in fiscal 2011 to 802 in fiscal 2013 — far fewer job cuts than previously estimated by local officials.