WASHINGTON — U.S. Sen. Mark Pryor, D-Ark., expressed serious doubts Wednesday about the Pentagon’s commitment to the 188th Fighter Wing in Fort Smith, suggesting officials may be setting up the Air Guard unit for closure.
The Department of Defense’s 2014 budget request failed to include funding needed to implement promised replacement missions for the unit’s A-10 fighters. At the same time, President Barack Obama has proposed a new round of military base closures and shifts through the Base Realignment and Closure program, or BRAC.
“To me it looks like they are setting up the 188th to be BRACed,” Pryor said during an interview in his Capitol office. “I mean, if the BRAC commission is looking at it what other conclusion do they reach?”
The 188th Air Wing and the Fort Smith community would be in a terrible position to defend keeping the base open if they do not have a flying mission and only have a promise for a drone mission in the future, Pryor said.
Pryor made his comments after confronting Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark A. Welsh III about the lack of funding for the promised unmanned aircraft mission for Fort Smith. Welsh testified Wednesday before a Senate Appropriations panel.
In a February letter to Pryor, Welsh outlined plans to convert the 188th Fighter Wing to a new unmanned aircraft mission. As the aircraft are drawn down, personnel would enter a two- to three-year conversion program to reach “Initial Operational Capability.”
The drone mission would retain 802 full-time positions, and Welsh wrote that the Air Force planned to add a 120-person targeting unit to Fort Smith. The Air Force plans to begin drawing down the A-10 Warthogs starting in September with the last aircraft leaving in the summer of 2014.
“When I look at the budget the A-10s are going away on schedule and the other things no funding or a tiny fraction of the budget needed,” Pryor said. “Why do you write a letter to a senator and then not fulfill the commitments you made in the letter?”
Welsh said he fully intended to meet the commitments in the letter but offered that many programs were not being funded in 2013 because of budget cuts.
“We are in survival mode. I don’t think that is a secret to anyone,” Welsh said.
Pryor said the failure to live up to commitments to the 188th Fighter Wing is unfair.
“You are sapping their morale and, by the way, all they have ever done is serve the country when you called on them to do so,” he said.
Although President Obama has requested another BRAC round, it will likely face stiff resistance in Congress. It would also be several years before any BRAC decision would be implemented.