WASHINGTON — Despite overwhelming votes to freeze Air Force mission shifts through the fiscal year, the final defense authorization bill puts the 188th Fighter Wing’s A-10 jet fighter mission in peril.
A conference report, signed Tuesday afternoon by House and Senate negotiators, drops the freeze from the final bill that lawmakers are expected to consider in an up-or-down vote later this week.
“Arkansas does take a hit,” said a senior official of the Senate Armed Services Committee after the conferees concluded their work.
The 188th Fighter Wing has almost 1,000 full- and part-time employees in Fort Smith.
The Arkansas congressional delegation is aware of the decision to accept an Air Force compromise offered in November. They declined to comment Tuesday afternoon, however, until the official report is made public.
The committee staffer, who spoke on background to a number of reporters, said the conferees thought the Air Force had made a good faith effort “to move things along.”
The conference does include language requiring an independent commission to review future force structure changes.
Last month, the Air Force shopped around a proposal to retain more A-10s within the Air Guard, allowing for bases in Michigan and Indiana to keep the mission. Fort Smith, however, was left on the chopping block.
Congress flatly rejected an Air Force budget proposal in February that would have slashed $487 billion in spending over the next decade because the cuts fell heavily on the Air National Guard. That proposal included removing the A-10 fighter mission from Fort Smith and replacing it with a drone mission.
The Air Force countered in the spring with a plan to restore 24 C-130s and 2,200 Guard personnel included in the cuts. Congress was not satisfied, however, and blocked the Air Force from shifting any Air Guard missions under a temporary budget resolution that extends until March.
The Senate and House voted widely in favor of defense authorization bills that would have extended the freeze through the end of September 2013. But, the freeze was dropped in conference negotiations.
The conference does include language that the Arkansas delegation backed requiring an independent commission to review future force structure changes.
Several trade publications had reported earlier Tuesday that the conference was lifting the freeze on the A-10s and F-16s after Rep. Tom Latham, R-Iowa, blasted U.S. House and Senate defense reauthorization negotiators for dropping a provision that would have temporarily blocked the White House’s planned retirement of the Iowa Air National Guard’s 132nd Fighter Wing F-16s.
Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, declined to comment on the A-10 issue earlier in the day.
The 188th’s history traces to Oct. 15, 1953, when the 184th Tactical Reconnaissance Squadron was organized and federally recognized in Fort Smith.