The last of the A-10 aircraft will depart the 188th Fighter Wing in June of next year, according to the fighter wing's commander Col. Mark Anderson who spoke Friday (Sept. 6) at the Fort Smith Regional Chamber of Commerce's First Friday Breakfast.
A draw down of the A-10 mission begins this month, with the Fort Smith Air National Guard Base receiving new missions that focus on drones and intelligence, he added.
With the loss of the A-10 mission and the new MQ9 (drone) mission, along with the relocation of the 123rd Intelligence Squadron from Little Rock Air Force Base to Fort Smith and other shifts, Anderson said Fort Smith's base should only see a small reduction in individuals stationed at the site. Currently, 977 positions are based at the 188th, which will be reduced to 960 positions as a result of the realignment.
While the number of positions will not see drastic changes, the types of positions will be vastly different. For example, Anderson said the base will lose all aircraft maintenance jobs and most aviation support positions as the drone mission will not require "guys with wrenches" to be on site and servicing the drones.
According to Anderson, an unknown at this time is whether the base will still have a fire department, which also serves the Fort Smith Regional Airport.
"The firefighters, (who are) state employees, that mission is actually uncertain," he said. "It is still to be determined. I don't know if y'all really know this or not, but the 188th provides 24/7 crash and rescue for the Fort Smith Regional Airport. And obviously if that goes away, then that's a burden that's going to have to be picked up by the regional airport. It's a pretty decent sized bill. And it's still uncertain whether we're going to keep that capability or not."
Airport Executive Director John Parker was at the breakfast this morning and said he and the 188th are doing all they can to keep the firefighting mission at the base.
"The funding source, and the agreements that we have are actually with the National Guard Bureau. We've been in communications with the National Guard Bureau and it's ongoing discussions about possible resolution of who's going to provide the firefighting," Parker said. "Right now, they do our aircraft rescue and firefighting. In the future, because we are required to have because of commercial service, it would either be the continued service by the Air National Guard assets or the Fort Smith Airport Commission would have to determine how they would source that, whether it be internally or by contract. There's a lot of variables."
Should the airport have to start fronting the bill for the firefighting service, Parker said the airport commission would have to explore funding options, adding that it was too early to determine if fees would have to be increased to cover such expenses.
Speaking of the future, Anderson said with the new MQ9 missions, along with the relocation of the 123rd Intelligence Squadron and other upcoming changes, it could be well beyond the start of Fiscal Year 2015 before the mission is fully operational due to the massive amounts of changes that will be required with both staff and equipment.
He said while the new mission will keep the 188th open and strong well into the future, changes would be noticeable. Among the changes, Anderson said the 188th:
• Will be less visible in the community;
• Will not be deployed as often since drones and other intelligence operations can be conducted remotely from the 188th headquarters instead of in a combat theater; and
• Will not be as open with information to the public due to the squadron's top secret operations and facilities.
Even with all of the changes coming the 188th, Anderson said a lot will stay the same, namely being a community-based mission.
Asked what that means to the local economy, Anderson said the base not having on-site shopping, housing and entertainment facilities, as many other bases do, brings members of the military into Fort Smith and adding significantly to the area's economic development.
"I believe it's $144 million a year economic impact," he said.
As for any guardsmen whose positions will no longer be based at the 188th, Anderson said they will likely stay within the Guard and move to bases in either Little Rock or Tulsa to continue with flight missions as pilots, mechanics or other positions while others are at or near retirement.
"Obviously, this is a big transition. Not everybody's going to make the transition. Those that are close to retirement age, we're finding are retiring," he said. "The good news is that pretty much everybody that wants a job, has a job."