By Peter Urban
U.S. Sen. Mark Pryor, D-Ark., said Wednesday that the Air Force should expand Fort Smith's 188th Fighter Wing mission to keep the "Flying Razorbacks" and add unmanned drones.
In its 2013 budget request, the Air Force has proposed replacing the A-10 mission with one that would operate Predator/Reaper drones.
While the entire Arkansas delegation is focused on saving the A-10, Pryor suggested Wednesday that the choice doesn't have to be between the two missions.
"I don't want to sound greedy, but we want both," Pryor said on a conference call with Arkansas reporters. "We can totally justify why both should be there."
Fort Smith provides an ideal setting for both missions given its proximity to the Fort Chaffee training facility and dedicated military air space over the Ozarks, Pryor said.
"We could and should do both for all the same reasons that the A-10 makes sense," Pryor said.
Kevin Wear, chairman of the 188th Steering Committee, agreed that the Air Force should be adding missions to Fort Smith given its unique assets.
"If decisions were being made based on objective and transparent criteria, I believe the Air Force would be looking at expanding the missions there as well as having a definite eye on the 188th as a future home to the Joint Strike Fighter," Wear said.
As to the battle for the A-10, Wear said the Steering Committee is cautiously optimistic that the Arkansas delegation will succeed in sending Air Force planners "back to the drawing board."
The Arkansas congressional delegation on Wednesday sent a letter to Defense Secretary Leon Panetta seeking more details into the decision making process behind removing the A-10 "Flying Razorbacks" from Fort Smith.
Pryor, Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark., and Reps. Mike Ross, D-Prescott, Steve Womack, R-Rogers, Tim Griffin, R-Little Rock, and Rick Crawford, R-Jonesboro, signed the letter. The letter requests a response by March 12.
Womack, whose district includes Fort Smith, also wrote a separate letter to Panetta, noting the 188th "outperforms in all major objective categories, and it is one of the most-cost-effective flying units in the Air Force."
Womack stated that the Air National Guard represents 21 percent of the total Air Force, but 59 percent of the aircraft cuts in the 2013 plan.
"The excessive nature of these cuts to the Air National Guard -- not just the 188th Fighter Wing -- doesn't make sense," Womack's letter states.
Aside from voicing its concerns with the Pentagon, Pryor said, the delegation is reaching out to its colleagues to impress on them the value of keeping the A-10 mission in Fort Smith, where the 188th Fighter Wing has proven to be the most cost-effective and best trained.
"I think we have some very good arguments on why the 188th should stay right where it is. Truth is on our side," he said.
But Pryor cautioned that saving the mission remains a difficult task given the short time period for rallying support. Congressional leaders are hoping to complete 2013 appropriations bills before the end of September.
"We have a fairly short time frame here because this is a budget matter. We need to deal with this in the next two or three months, so the pressure is on," Pryor said.
The 188th is currently authorized about 1,000 airmen, with a full-time staff of about 350 and 21 assigned A-10 aircraft.
On Tuesday, the Arkansas state Senate passed Senate Resolution 1 by Sen. Jake Files, R-Fort Smith, which asks the U.S. Department of the Air Force, the U.S. Department of Defense and the National Guard Bureau to keep the 188th in Fort Smith. Also Tuesday, the Fort Smith Airport Commission adopted a resolution supporting the 188th.