In this effort to reverse a decision to remove A-10 war planes now attached to the Fort Smith-based 188th Fighter Wing, much has been made of the unwillingness or inability of the Department of Defense (DOD) to “justify” the decision.
The decision is to remove the 20 A-10 planes from Fort Smith and give the 188th a mission to support the unmanned Predator drone. At risk, if one is to believe the initial reports, are up to 1,000 full- and part-time jobs directly and indirectly related to the 188th fighter mission.
Numerous demands from our Congressional delegation for the numbers behind the DOD decision have been ignored. Our Congressional delegation and community leaders maintain that the 188th is the most efficient operator of the A-10 in the Guard, Reserve or Active Duty Air Force. We’ve had a field hearing in Fort Smith during which hundreds of politicians, military families and concerned citizens attended to protest any action to vacate the A-10. The rallying cry to save the 188th, to save the “Flying Razorbacks” is loud.
But is it logical? Is keeping the A-10 mission the best long-term outcome? Certainly, we can lobby to retain an A-10 unit as long as possible, but are we unwilling or unable to simultaneously pursue other options?
The air base history at Fort Smith has been one of hand-me down aircraft; the last stops for the F-101, F-100, F-4, F-16 and, probably, the A-10. Fort Smith is where the older horses of the cavalry go to ride out their career. Even if we save the A-10, don’t be surprised when in five years the Air Force announces a plan to phase out the A-10 – a plane that first flew in 1972 and began regular service in 1977.
What if we redirected our energies toward becoming an integral part of the future of aerial warfare and civilian/scientific aerial technology? The DOD has opened the door to this possibility with their initial plan to replace the A-10 with an unmanned aerial vehicle – although we shouldn't settle for just a Predator mission.
“Unmanned Aerial Vehicles are an exciting field in the world of aviation, with new discoveries and proposed uses being documented daily,” noted a 2004 report from MITRE Corp., a reputable non-profit research company. “Over the next 16 years, UAVs will become a significant component of military, civil, and perhaps even commercial aviation.”
Some of the UAV uses noted in the report included high-altitude imagery, border patrol, maritime surveillance, weather research, media and traffic reporting and law enforcement
“Military investment in UAV research, systems, and applied technologies is increasing, and potential uses for UAVs in civil operations, particularly for homeland security, is being investigated by federal, state, and local governments. These developments, along with growing scientific interest in UAVs, are fueling commercial interest in the unmanned market. The growing enthusiasm for UAVs is not unfounded,” noted the MITRE report.
An April 2012 DOD report suggests the military has yet to fully determine how it will manage the expected growth in UAV use. The door remains open for innovative proposals from communities who might prefer to be on the leading edge of military and civilian aviation changes.
“In particular, to support their UAS inventories, the military services must train sufficient numbers of personnel to operate and maintain the aircraft, provide adequate facilities and other infrastructure to sustain them, and provide sufficient access to airspace and training ranges to train military personnel within the United States and at military bases overseas,” DOD officials wrote.
The report indicates a need for about 3,500 pilots and operators needed in fiscal year 2015 – just for three UAV models. This does not include the thousands of mechanics and other support staff. The report also suggests the U.S. military will have a fleet of about 8,400 UAV in fiscal 2015.
DOD officials list 110 potential sites for activity related to UAV use, with Fort Chaffee on the list.
Unmanned vehicles are programmed to respond fast to new threats, opportunities, geographies and other realities in an effort to ensure long-term survival. As a community, we might consider mimicking said programming.
Conversations with people who know better about these things say it is not unreasonable to believe the Fort Smith area could be a center for the future growth of UAV systems for military and civilian applications. They suggest the default-setting politics of protecting a comfortable concept – a manned aircraft – may be the only reason we don’t call the DOD bluff and increase the bet by asking to play a larger role in how all military branches utilize UAV systems.
How could we sell Fort Smith? Many ways. Here are a few.
• We are a central U.S. location, which would be convenient point for training and other needs of UAV wings on east and west coasts, and UAV wings providing border protection north and south. The Department of Energy finds the area practical to train its personnel. Why not the DOD?
• The Fort Smith area features access by rail, interstate and navigable waterway, all convenient for shipping UAVs and components.
• In addition to an aerial firing range, there is space at Fort Chaffee for secure runway(s) and hangars. The Air Force facilities at the Fort Smith Regional Airport would also be practical.
• With large national forests north and south of the area, there is plenty of possible air operations space.
• There is a proven engineering and research university just one hour away (University of Arkansas).
• If DOD suppliers need a place to manufacture UAV platforms or components or both, I’ve been told the Whirlpool facility is empty. Ditto for the Mitsubishi building at nearby Chaffee Crossing.
Admittedly, the politics of military spending and the unknowns of UAV systems create complexities in which easy answers are rare, if not wrong. But there are two things we know with some certainty: The A-10 has a limited life. The UAV has a future – and that future will deliver R&D jobs and white collar jobs and advanced manufacturing jobs and jobs we don’t now have.
Those in charge have chosen to lobby only for the retention of that which is limited. It shouldn’t be too much to ask our federal, state and local leaders to justify this choice.