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Last of the 188th warplanes depart, unit converts to new mission

story and photos by Michael Tilley
mtilley@thecitywire.com

As the last two A-10 Warthogs departed the Air National Guard base in Fort Smith on Saturday (June 7), a small boy looking to the sky was excited about what might happen next. “Do the drones come now?” he asked his mother.

The child will be as disappointed as those who didn’t want to see the A-10s leave. The drones will not physically come to Fort Smith, at least not those used on the business end of the new mission for the former 188th Fighter Wing. But the “remotely piloted aircraft” mission – don’t call them drones, the media has been told – is officially the new mission for the rebranded 188th Wing.

Several hundred members of the unit, former unit members, their families, dignitaries and the media attended a Saturday morning “Conversion Day” ceremony in which “Fighter” was removed from the 188th Fighter Wing moniker.

Broad cuts in U.S. defense spending – possibly up to $500 billion over 10 years – included the removal of 20 A-10 Thunderbolt fighter planes from the 188th Fighter Wing in Fort Smith. It was announced in 2012 that the A-10 Thunderbolt fighters of the 188th would be lost and the unit’s mission would change to an intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) mission.

188TH HISTORY
The unit began in October 1953 as the 184th Tactical Reconnaissance Squadron. The unit has been home to nine aircraft types, beginning with the RB-26, a twin-engine modified bomber. The unit converted in 1956 to the RF-80, a jet aircraft, when the unit was assigned a daylight reconnaissance mission.

The RF-84F arrived in 1957, and was replaced in 1970 by the RF-101 (Voodoo). In 1972 the unit’s recon mission ended with the arrival of the F-100 Super Sabre. The unit was recast as the 188th Tactical Fighter Group. In 1979, the “Flying Razorbacks” handle was adopted by the 188th when it received the F-4C Phantom.

In 1988 the F-16A Fighting Falcon replaced the F-4C, and in 2000 the F-16s were upgraded to the F-16 A variant. A last-minute decision by the Base Realignment and Closure Committee in 2005 replaced the F-16 with the A-10. On April 14, 2007, the 188th received its first A-10.

Col. Mark Anderson, who will continue to command the 188th, said during the Saturday ceremony that the unit with its A-10 planes set several combat theater records for performance, and he also praised the unit’s 2005 history when its F-16 fighter plans flew in Iraq to support Operation Iraqi Freedom.

“We cherish the proud aviation heritage our members have worked so hard to build,” Anderson said.

Col. Brian Burger, commander of the 188th Operations Group, said the 188th is “exiting the manned flying mission at the top of our game.” He said the same performance would be part of the new unmanned mission in which “Arkansas airmen now take the fight to the enemy ... all day, every day.”

Without the A-10 Warthogs, aka “Flying Razorbacks,” to support, the 188th deactivated its Maintenance Group – a group with the unofficial motto, “We Make Pigs Fly.”

NEW UNITS
The primary component of the new mission for the 188th Wing is the 188th ISR (Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance) Group. The 188th ISR is comprised of the 123rd Intelligence Squadron, the 153rd Intelligence Squadron, the 223rd Intelligence Support Squadron, and the 288th Operations Support Squadron.

The 188th ISR is commanded by Lt. Col. Robert Kinney, a career intelligence officer with more than 24 years in the Air National Guard. In 2012, Kinney was named chief of “ISR Plans and Integration,” a role in which he would lead the planning for more than 20 new ISR Guard units.

The 123rd is commanded by Lt. Col. Tina Lipscomb and has 120 members. The 123rd role is to conduct “near real time exploitation of imagery intelligence data, collected by” ISR units with that info then delivered in a useful manner to “combatant commanders and war fighting forces.”

The 153rd is commanded by Major Sarah Stigler, and will have 107 members. The unit provides “targeting production capability” based on gathering data and other intelligence from “a number of sources.”

Lt. Col. John Easley commands the 223rd, which has 50 members. This group “develops and trains Cyber systems professional and provides critical cyberspace communication services” for the 188th’s missions.

Major Paul Needham commands the 52 members of the 288th. This group “provides support to the daily operations of the 188th ISR Group, including training, plans, mission management, and weapons and tactics functions for the AN/GSQ 272 ‘SENTINEL’ weapons system.” This unit is also part of the Distributed Common Ground System of the U.S. Air Force.

Overall, the 188th ISR Group will have 347 members, and at some point will operate from a planned $12.5 million, 40,000-square-foot facility to be built on the 188th base that Col. Anderson has said could help the 188th become an “ISR Center of Excellence.” Counting operations, security, medical and other groups, the 188th will have more than 900 personnel who will train and operate from the Air National Guard base in Fort Smith.

Anderson said Saturday that the new intel and “space-focused targeting squadrons” are staffed by “highly skilled personnel” with top secret clearances. He also said the Fort Smith metro business community could benefit from those who will staff the new mission.

“I encourage our business leaders to leverage” this new talent pool, Anderson said.

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Anderson closed his comments by saying the new mission is an important mission to the nation’s defense.

“We will be relevant. We will succeed.”

That may be, but one of the 188th crew members who worked the flight line as the two A-10’s were prepped for departure was not ready to see the war birds leave.

“Pretty sad,” the airman said when asked what he thought about helping prep the final A-10 to taxi away from the hangar area.

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