After the Friday (Jan. 18) visit to the 188th Fighter Wing by Chief of Staff of the Air Force General Mark Welsh III, Major Heath Allen with the 188th issued a press release providing more details on the general’s time in Fort Smith.
Broad cuts in U.S. defense spending – possibly up to $500 billion over 10 years – 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 remotely piloted Predator aircraft. The unmanned aircraft and intelligence specialists needed to analyze drone-driven data would not necessarily be based in Fort Smith.
Following are some of the key points in the 188th statement.
• Under the plan that would remove the A-10 planes, the 188th will likely add a targeting squadron, intel group and will plus up in other areas.
• Removal of the A-10 would result in the 188th losing its maintenance group, which consists of about 400 Airmen.
• Of the five A-10 wings in the Air National Guard, the 188th is the only unit slated to change missions. The A-10 wings based in Idaho, Michigan, Indiana and Maryland were spared because they were the state’s lone Air National Guard flying mission.
• Welsh said once the NDAA (National Defense Authorization Act) is finalized, the Air Force will have a more accurate gauge of exactly when the 188th’s conversion to RPAs (remotely piloted aircraft) will begin.
• The 188th also pitched to General Welsh its ability to potentially take on new fighter missions in the future such as the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.
Below is the 188th press release in its unedited entirety.
FORT SMITH, Ark. - The 188th Fighter Wing moved one step closer to achieving closure Friday during a visit by Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark A. Welsh III.
Welsh along with Lt. Gen. Harry Wyatt, director of the Air National Guard, toured the 188th’s facilities Friday and met with wing and state military leadership as well as members of the Arkansas and Oklahoma Congressional delegation. Welsh also met with community leaders and city officials at social gathering held in Fort Smith Thursday night.
“I expected to see an outstanding fighter wing that does a great service to our nation and, I believe, the state of Arkansas, and that’s exactly what I’ve seen,” Welsh said during a press conference following his tour. “They have a great installation here. There’s a great range complex that they train on. They are immersed in the mission of our Air Force, and I got to see that this morning. No surprises there.”
For nearly a year, the 188th has endured uncertainty concerning its A-10 Thunderbolt II mission, which is slated to be replaced with a remotely piloted MQ-9 Reaper mission. And for nearly a year, the Arkansas Congressional delegation has fought to keep the 188th’s manned aircraft flying mission in Fort Smith. But nothing on Friday altered the course of the 188th, which appears headed toward a mission conversion.
“We had a great visit and some very candid conversations about the future of A-10s and the future of the 188th,” said Col. Mark Anderson, 188th Fighter Wing commander. “We understand the Air Force is facing tough decisions. But even in our disappointment that we will likely no longer have A-10s we also understand how important it is to have a mission. And the bottom line is that we will have a mission at the 188th and it’s an emerging mission that keeps us in the fight and engaged in helping defend our nation.”
U.S. Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla.; U.S. Sen. Mark Pryor, D-Ark.; U.S. Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark.; U.S. Rep. Steve Womack, R-Rogers; and U.S. Rep. Tom Cotton, R-Dardanelle, were all present during a meeting with Welsh, Wyatt and 188th and Arkansas National Guard state leadership.
“I will be working with the members of this delegation, the leaders of the City of Fort Smith and the Arkansas National Guard in doing what we can to salvage out of this decision, the very best possible circumstance for Airmen located out of Fort Smith,” Womack said. “A remotely piloted aircraft mission, surrounded by any other ancillary-type missions to go with it, to build the very best circumstances in going forward.”
Under the plan, the 188th will likely add a targeting squadron, intel group and will plus up in other areas.
“The intent would be – in every way possible - to keep as many people as possible who currently wear the 188th Fighter Wing badge assigned to the 188th Reconnaissance Wing, if that’s what it ends up being,” Welsh said.
But under the current plan, the 188th would lose its maintenance group, which consists of about 400 Airmen. Manpower studies suggest the 188th’s loss of military positions will be small but no information is available on the full-time manning.
“The intent is not for the unit to go away,” Welsh said. “And one of the things that I think everybody involved in the whole discussion will tell you is that the strength of the 188th Fighter Wing is not the hardware on the ramp, it’s the people who make it work: The people who fix it and fly it, and deal with the imperfections of the mission and somehow accomplish it anyway. They’ve always been the excellence of this organization.
“Someone who worked on a specific system on the old plane thinks they don’t have any jobs in the new one, but they do. They transition to a new mission, keep doing great stuff.”
While Welsh came away impressed with the 188th’s facilities, he said the Air National Guard’s Capstone Principle of one flying wing per state would likely be the decisive factor that prompts the 188th’s transition to remotely piloted aircraft.
“The director of the Air Guard and the state adjutants general are going to have to have a discussion about how they think the best posture of the force nationwide is, and I respect their views on it,” Welsh said.
Of the five A-10 wings in the Air National Guard, the 188th is the only unit slated to change missions. The A-10 wings based in Idaho, Michigan, Indiana and Maryland were spared because they were the state’s lone Air National Guard flying mission.
“Well, right now in the National Defense Authorization Act, the intent is for the 188th to transition,” Welsh said. “Now we will look at the long-range look for the entire Guard in this next nine-month forecast.”
Welsh said once the NDAA is finalized, the Air Force will have a more accurate gauge of exactly when the 188th’s conversion to RPAs will begin.
“Once we have the final Congressional decisions and once we have the paperwork complete, then we will move forward with an appropriations bill that allows us to do that,” Welsh said. “Then we’ll move forward with the timeline.”
That RPA path that the 188th appears to be headed toward didn’t stop the unit from conveying to Welsh the value of its vast airspace and training range, which ranks No. 1 among all Air National Guard fighter units and No. 1 among all A-10 Thunderbolt II wings Air Force-wide in terms of proximity to base and cost efficiency.
Welsh also took an aerial tour of Fort Chaffee on an Arkansas National Guard UH-60 Blackhawk from the 77th Theatre Aviation Brigade based at Camp Joseph T. Robinson. Welsh was transported to the 188th’s Detachment 1 Razorback Range where he observed close-air support training with the 188th’s A-10s and attack controllers with the Air Force’s 22nd Special Tactics Squadron.
The 188th also communicated to Welsh the importance of the unique Special Forces training conducted regularly at Razorback Range just minutes away at nearby Fort Chaffee. The 188th trains hundreds of attack controllers for the U.S. Army Rangers, Navy SEALS and Air Force Special Ops each year. A representative from each was present at Friday’s meeting.
The 188th also pitched its ability to potentially take on new fighter missions in the future such as the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. Maj. Jay Spohn, former 188th pilot, talked about the importance of the 188th’s ranges and airspace, how his training with Special Forces at the 188th was unique and how the unit is a good fit for 5th generation multi-role fighters. Spohn was the first Air National Guard pilot selected to fly the F-35.
“The training that I got at the 188th is something you can’t duplicate anywhere else,” Spohn said. “It’s ranges, airspace and the ability to train with JTACs [Joint Terminal Attack Controllers] regularly is invaluable training to the warfighters on the ground and to the pilots providing close-air support. You simply can’t beat it.”
Despite the 188th’s catalog of unique assets, its transition to RPAs appears to be on autopilot. Welsh said regardless of the Air National Guard unit selected for conversion, it will be a tough call.
“All of us are going to have opinions as we move forward on this,” Welsh said. “I think everybody’s trying to do the right thing. It’s not a matter of evil people, it’s a matter of tough problems.”