The finality of the decision to replace the A-10 fighters of the Fort Smith-based 188th Fighter Wing with a vague remotely piloted aerial vehicle recon mission is best encapsulated from a statement within a memo from 188th commander Col. Mark Anderson.
“The conversion starts now. We've had the 188th conversion team in place for several weeks now and they are doing outstanding work,” Anderson noted in an internal memo released Tuesday to the Fort Smith Board of Directors.
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 a remotely piloted area vehicle — most likely the Predator drone. The remotely piloted aerial vehicles and intelligence specialists needed to analyze drone-driven data may not be based in Fort Smith.
Although the decision to remove change the 188th mission from a fighter wing to a recon mission seemed certain months ago, hope remained for some in the community. However, a Jan. 18 visit to Fort Smith  by Chief of Staff of the Air Force General Mark Welsh III left little room for doubt as to the future of the A-10 mission. He said the focus remains on transitioning the unit to a drone mission, which he said would result in a “small decrease” in the number of Air Force personnel needed in Fort Smith. However, a drone mission keeps a unit active in Fort Smith.
“The intent is not for the unit to go away,” Welsh stressed during a Jan. 18 press conference, adding that the decrease in personnel may be handled through attrition.
Anderson’s detailed memo – almost 1,300 words – included several words of encouragement to the 188th troopers who have for months worked under a cloud of uncertainty.
The good thing is we have a mission-a great mission-one that will keep the majority of jobs in the Fort Smith community. This mission will be RPA and intelligence. In both areas, we will have daily engagement in some of the most important and contested regions of the world,” Anderson noted in the memo.
Continuing, Anderson explained: “The 188th should be extremely proud that we have been entrusted with such a critical component of our nation's defense. Bottom line: When the conversion is finished, the 188th will have a more direct and more frequent impact on our nation's global engagements than ever before.”
But Anderson also explained that the conversion will not be easy, noting that the mission change will be “the most radical in the 60 year history of the 188th.”
He said the changes will cause some lengthy training courses for some unit members, including four to nine month “off-station” trips for some. Construction at the base may also require some members to seek a temporary duty station to “maintain proficiency” until the conversion is complete.
Anderson said patience will be required through the process.
“None of the obstacles ahead of us are insurmountable. We will be extremely organized and will communicate well. Best of all, we have outstanding Airmen/NCOs and officers that excel in these challenges. We will do fine; just be patient, as it won't all happen overnight,” Anderson wrote.
Following is Anderson’s complete memo.
Members of the 188th Fighter Wing, here is an update on some of the recent events and some words on the way forward.
Gen Welsh and Lt Gen Wyatt visit: The CSAF visit went extremely well thanks to the tireless efforts of countless members. He arrived on the evening of Thursday, 17 Jan and departed about 1430 that next day. On the first day he was treated to a first-class reception by the community at the Movie Lounge.
The next day the community lined the streets in support of the 188th as he entered the base. We then gave him our value and capabilities brief with rock-star guest speakers from Army/Air Force Special Forces talking about their experiences here. In addition, Maj Jay Spohn (first ANG pilot to fly the F-35) spoke about how the F-35 would fare here. Then we took him on a base tour. After the tour it was on to Ops to observe a live mission data link of Navy SEALS and A-10s training at Fort Chaffee.
Following Ops, we traveled by helo to Razorback Range where he saw first-hand our A-10s supporting a Close Air Support mission with Air Force Special Forces, and Army UH-60s/CH-47s. Afterwards, we flew back to base where he, Senators Inhofe/Pryor/Boozman, and Congressmen Womack/Cotton, heard amazing accounts from the recent Bagram deployment. I believe Gen Welsh and Lt Gen Wyatt were very impressed with our Airmen as well as our capabilities, facilities and training partners. In fact, I've recently heard several instances where they were both bragging on Fort Smith. However, in the end the Air Force still intends to remove the A-10 from service. That combined with the ANG's Capstone Principal #1 (at least one flying wing/state) means that we will be converting to new missions.
The new missions: The good thing is we have a mission-a great mission-one that will keep the majority of jobs in the Fort Smith community. This mission will be RPA and intelligence. In both areas, we will have daily engagement in some of the most important and contested regions of the world.
Our talented Airmen will be collecting/analyzing/targeting on a real-time basis from home-station. These missions will have both tactical elements and national strategic implications. The 188th should be extremely proud that we have been entrusted with such a critical component of our nation's defense. Bottom line: When the conversion is finished, the 188th will have a more direct and more frequent impact on our nation's global engagements than ever before.
The conversion: The conversion starts now. We've had the 188th conversion team in place for several weeks now and they are doing outstanding work.
The overall conversion PROJO is Lt Col Toby "Yobi" Brallier; his assistant is Lt Col John Easley. Under their direction, we have the conversion committee and several sub-committees. The sub-committees include: personnel/training, facilities, operations, intel, and maintenance. Each sub-committee will have a counterpart assigned from ANG to assist and provide guidance. For the full-time members: the union and HRO will be heavily involved in every step along the way.
Although we are making significant progress, we do need three items from ANG in order to move from the planning stage to the execution stage. Until we get the timeline, the manning document, and have the SATAF, we will be somewhat limited on specific plans. I promise you, the conversion team is 100% committed to pushing information to our members. They already have designed several information sharing plans which you will hear about soon. In fact, they even have a series of briefings planned for Sunday, 3 Feb. There will be qualified people from most of the major new career fields sharing information. These experts are coming to talk about their job including qualifications, training, work schedule, critical skills,...etc. These briefings will be given several times throughout the day and are open to all unit members. We will film the briefings for those that are unable to attend.
Expectations: I'd like to take a minute to try to manage transition expectations. Please understand, this conversion will be the 188th's largest and most challenging mission change to date. First, since the FY-13 National Defense Authorization Act changed so much and was so controversial, the Air Force and ANG planners got a late start. As a result, some personnel/training actions may happen faster than what we would like.
Second, the mission change is the most radical in the 60 year history of the 188th. This will require long off-station training courses for most of those that convert. Training lengths will vary but it won't be uncommon for some members to be off-station for 4-9 months. Third, significant construction will be required. Until the construction is complete some will likely have to go TDY to maintain proficiency awaiting permanent facilities.
Finally, the nature of any conversion lends itself to some downtime. Some will train early and will have to wait on facilities and others to catch up before we can do the mission here. Some will train late while awaiting school slots. In either scenario, our leaders must stay engaged and ensure our Airmen are cared for, are focused, and are as productive as possible.
None of the obstacles ahead of us are insurmountable. We will be extremely organized and will communicate well. Best of all, we have outstanding Airmen/NCOs and officers that excel in these challenges. We will do fine; just be patient, as it won't all happen overnight.
The budget: I'm sure you've seen the recently released NGB budget guidance. Until Congress/the President release a fiscal plan, all expenses will be highly scrutinized to ensure only mission essential expenditures are made.
Please look at the NGB guidance for details (S:\FW\FW\Command & Control\FM) <file:///\\188FW-FS-09\SHARED\FW\FW\Command%20&%20Control\FM> however, if
you're unsure if expenditure is authorized, please contact Lt Col Ryals or Lt Carmen from FM (573-5369). There are some cases where I am authorized to make exceptions to the guidance for mission critical activities. Fortunately, most of the restrictions are not going to be a huge impact on the 188th.
The inspection: Good news! Due to the conversion, the UCI portion of the inspection is cancelled. It will be rescheduled for after we officially declare operationally ready in the new missions. The other parts of the compliance visit are still being worked by the IG. I'm very optimistic that the LCAP inspection and the Combat Shield inspection will also be cancelled.
However, I believe the HSI will go as scheduled. For all of you that have been working on your programs and particularly MICT, thank you. The organization is better for your actions. Checklist owners (except Ops and MX) keep working on your MICT, those will be needed in the upcoming months for our Management Internal Control Plan.
I am so proud of this organization. The 188th has powered through a ton of adversity and uncertainty the past couple of years and we are stronger for it. The good news is we now we have a way forward. Airmen, keep the fantastic attitude. Officers and NCOs, keep leading and communicating. We have an amazing team and we are going to excel in everything the future holds.
I'm honored to be your commander. Please let me know if there is anything I can do for you.
Col Mark Anderson