By Jeff Arnold
Southwest Times Record
5:52 pm - January 18, 2013 — Updated: 10:31 pm - January 18, 2013
The hope that accompanied his arrival at the 188th Fighter Wing evaporated before the Air Force chief of staff's plane left the tarmac at Fort Smith Regional Airport on Friday afternoon.
Arkansas' congressional delegation persuaded Gen. Mark Welsh III to visit the 188th, in hopes the unit could survive proposed budget cuts that call for eliminating its A-10 mission and replacing it with a "remote piloted aircraft," or drone, mission.
Shortly before Christmas, both the U.S. House and U.S. Senate passed a $640.5 billion defense authorization bill that would remove the A-10 mission from the 188th. The entire Arkansas delegation voted in favor.
At a Friday news conference shortly before he left Fort Smith, Welsh said his visit hadn't changed those plans.
"Right now the National Defense Authorization Act, the intent is for it to transition, with a look at the long-range look of the entire (Air National) Guard in this next nine-month workup," Welsh said.
When asked why the 188th will lose its A-10 mission, although it outperforms other Guard units that will retain A-10 missions, Welsh said he wouldn't get into that.
"I've heard lots of discussion about this wing is better than that wing or this state is more committed to it than that state, but that's not what I've seen. That's not what the director of the Air National Guard tells me … so I won't get into that discussion," Welsh said.
The general did confirm that strategic plan principles on the Air National Guard to keep at least one manned flying mission at a Guard unit in every state did impact the decision to remove A-10s from the 188th.
Both Sen. Mark Pryor, D-Ark., and Rep. Steve Womack, R-Rogers, said that detail was the one factor the 188th couldn't overcome in the fight to keep the A-10 mission.
"In every measurable objective criteria, used in determining the cost-efficiency, the capabilities and accomplishments of a unit … the 188th wins on every count. The one issue we could not overcome is Arkansas has two (Guard) flying missions, and we are up against a cornerstone principle … that is, they want to keep one flying mission per state. So that makes one of our flying missions expendable," Womack said.
Pryor said it wasn't a fair fight from the beginning because of the Guard's goal of one manned flying mission per state.
Womack, Pryor, Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark., and Rep. Tom Cotton, R-Dardanelle, held a joint news conference at the TAC Air terminal at the airport following the general's departure.
Despite not changing Welsh's mind, the visit was still important, Boozman said, because it showed him the capabilities and resources available at the 188th and in the surrounding community.
"It was important for them to see what they've got for future training and future missions," Boozman said.
Welsh said budget cuts also are working against the 188th.
To stay within budget, the Air Force will have to get smaller. That means looking at what to reduce first, multi-mission capable aircraft or single-mission capable aircraft like the A-10, Welsh said.
Welsh said the drone mission is a "great mission" and a "growing mission" that will be a big part of the future. He noted the Air Force is now training more drone pilots than fixed-wing pilots, and drones are being flown all over the world every day.
Expressing optimism about the drone mission, Pryor said transitioning to the drone wouldn't preclude the 188th from taking on a mission in addition to drones or a new mission in the future.
Lt. Gen. Bud Wyatt III, director of the Air National Guard, said a time line for transition will depend on when Congress approves appropriations, as well as other factors such as where retired aircraft will be moved, because the A-10 isn't the only aircraft being phased out of the Air Force inventory.
Womack said he expects action on Congress' part by the end of February, although that could be delayed a couple of months. Nonetheless, Womack said, the 188th transition should begin this year and continue into 2014.
Tracy Winchell, spokesperson for the 188th Fighter Wing/Fort Chaffee Community Council, said 188th members and the community are in a holding pattern.
"What now? That's where we're at," Winchell said. "At this early stage it looks like we'll work toward the drones with an eye toward the F-35."
The F-35 is a multipurpose fighter that is relatively new to the Air Force. Only 18 are dedicated to the Guard, and that number could shrink because of budget cuts, Womack said.
Both Fort Smith Mayor Sandy Sanders and Welsh were highly complimentary of Arkansas' congressional delegation and its efforts, saying it was the congressmen who were responsible for Welsh visiting the 188th.
Sanders said delegation members had done "yeoman's work" for the 188th.
Welsh said the delegation engaged him as soon as he became chief of staff in August and remained engaged.
The delegation was also complimentary of the 188th and the surrounding community.
Womack said members of the delegation and the community poured their hearts and souls into preserving a manned flying mission, and the "men and women of the 188th have done all that was asked of them."
Welsh said he understands the "trauma and concern" of 188th members in light of a mission change, which is being felt across the Guard and active Air Force, where missions are also changing and units are being closed.
The general confirmed there will be a small reduction in force at the 188th when it transitions. The 188th employs about 1,000 personnel, including airmen.
Welsh said whether that reduction can be handled through attrition, as part-time members move onto other jobs or full-time members want to look for other opportunities and possibly remain at A-10 Guard units, remains unknown.
"The intent would be, in every way possible, to keep as many people who wear the 188th Fighter Wing patch assigned to the 188th Reconnaissance Wing," Welsh said.
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