FORT SMITH, Ark. (AP) — Wing Commander Col. Mark Anderson says the Air Force is showing a tremendous amount of trust in the 188th Fighter Wing by assigning drone, targeting and intelligence components to the base.
"We believe we'll be the only Air National Guard base with all three of those elements in the same location," Anderson said during a Friday interview. "These are serious missions, they go on daily, and they impact both tactical decisions and have strategic implications throughout the world."
Anderson said the mission change is the most radical in the 60-year history of the 188th, which was initially established as the 184th Tactical Reconnaissance Squadron in October 1953.
For the first time in its history, the Fort Smith-based 188th won't have a manned flying mission; its assignments have included nine different aircraft over the years. The most recent is the A-10, which was assigned in 2005. Shortly before Christmas, both the U.S. House and U.S. Senate passed a $640.5 billion defense authorization bill that removes the A-10 mission from the 188th.
The conversion from the F-16 to A-10 took three years, and Anderson said it's fair to say this conversion will take a "few years," although a definitive timeline isn't in place yet.
For now the conversion remains in the planning stage, and will move into the execution stage when the National Guard Bureau provides a conversion timeline and a manning document, and a Site Action Task Force visits the unit, Anderson said.
The Site Action Task Force is a team of functional experts who will sort out details of the conversion. The manning document will provide the exact number of personnel assigned, how they'll be assigned and how many full- and part-time positions will be assigned, and the timeline will dictate when the 188th is expected to be mission ready.
Anderson said he expects the manning document will be provided next month and said it's possible the Site Action Task Force will visit in the spring.
Two elements that will impact the timeline are training and construction.
Anderson said until they have particulars on when training slots are available and when and what facilities are going to be constructed, they won't have a timeline in place.
At this point, Anderson said he doesn't know if any existing facilities will be demolished to make way for new permanent facilities, if temporary facilities will be used, or existing facilities will be modified.
The colonel did say all initial training will take place at other Air Force bases, and some personnel will have to travel additionally for continued training to maintain proficiency until any facility modifications are completed.
At a news conference following his Jan. 18 tour of the 188th, Air Force Chief of Staff Mark Welsh III called the drone mission a "great mission" and a "growing mission" that will be a big part of the future. Welsh 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.
Although the change is radical, Anderson said Friday that he thinks morale has remained good, despite the disappointment over the 188th losing its manned flying mission.
"I think at the end of the day that our members are at least happy we have some resolution and have a plan moving forward," Anderson said.
He does expect some pilots will want to transfer to units where they can continue to fly and that some maintenance personnel will seek transfers to continue working on aircraft.
"We don't know to what degree yet; we're still sorting through that," Anderson said.
Information from: Southwest Times Record, http://www.swtimes.com/