Arkansas’ Congressional delegation say the door remains open to save the mission of the 188th Fighter Wing in Fort Smith, although recent approval of federal legislation outlining future U.S. defense spending included a plan to remove the A-10 aircraft from the 188th.
The delegation formally announced Friday (Jan. 4) that Chief of Staff of the Air Force, General Mark Welsh III will visit the 188th Fighter Wing on Jan. 18.
Arkansas’ Congressional delegation consists of U.S. Sens. Mark Pryor, D-Ark.; John Boozman, R-Ark.; U.S. Reps. Tom Cotton, R-Dardanelle; Rick Crawford, R-Jonesboro; Tim Griffin, R-Little Rock; and Steve Womack, R-Rogers.
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 unit has almost 1,000 full- and part-time employees. 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.
A recent compromise, which was included in the National Defense Authorization Act, retained A-10 units in Michigan and Indiana, but not with the Fort Smith-based 188th. Arkansas officials say the Air Force decision to reduce A-10 units was not based “on a detailed analysis of cost-efficiency.”
"Today's announcement is welcome news for the 188th Fighter Wing and the entire Fort Smith community," Pryor said in the statement announcing the Welsh visit. "The Air Force's initial decision about the 188th was wrong, and this visit will give us an opportunity to demonstrate why it's in the best interest of our national security to keep a vital mission at the 188th."
Ideally, the visit would change the Air Force plan – something still possible according to a statement from U.S. Sen. Boozman’s office.
“The decision by the Air Force is not finalized in law. NDAA allowed the Air Force to continue planning it modernization efforts during the 2013 Fiscal year, but nothing has been set in stone – it does not define its force structure changes. There is nothing in legislation that says the 188th is being stripped of its mission,” noted the statement.
Womack is hopeful that Welsh will see the value of the 188th.
“Thanks to General Welsh for making it a priority to visit the 188th Fighter Wing. I am confident that when he gets to Fort Smith, he will see the incredible value the Flying Razorbacks lend to our national defense,” Womack said in the Friday statement.
Cotton, the newest member of the delegation, represents the 4th Congressional District which includes a significant part of the Fort Smith metro area. Cotton said the defense cuts require closer scrutiny of unit efficiencies.
“As our nation faces sobering cuts to defense spending, it is more important than ever that the dedicated servicemen and women at Fort Smith’s 188th Fighter Wing have the opportunity to demonstrate their capabilities and effectiveness to General Welsh and his staff. I greatly appreciate his willingness to visit the Fort Smith Air National Guard Station,” Cotton said.