FORT SMITH (AP) — Pleas from Fort Smith residents and local and state officials weren’t enough to sway the Air Force chief of staff Friday to change his mind about shifting the focus of the city’s military base.
The Air Force plans to move the 188th Fighter Wing and its A-10 jets from the Fort Smith air base and replace the mission with one focused on using drone aircraft. More than 1,000 airmen are stationed at the Arkansas National Guard Base.
Gen. Mark Welsh visited the base Friday and met with area officials. Afterward, he said the plan would not change.
"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, according the Southwest Times Record.
He said he didn’t want to get into reports that show the 188th will lose its mission even though it outperforms other guard units.
"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," Welsh said. "That’s not what the director of the Air National Guard tells me . so I won’t get into that discussion."
Fort Smith residents demonstrated their support Friday for keeping the 188th Fighter Wing at the air base, lining the streets as Welsh visited the facility.
U.S. Sens. Mark Pryor and John Boozman, among others, wanted Welsh to see the base before making a decision on its fate.
The 188th is a unit of the Arkansas Air National Guard and was organized in Fort Smith in 1953 as the 184th Tactical Reconnaissance Squadron. The unit includes 1,000 airmen who pilot and support A-10 Thunderbolt "Warthogs."
Shirley Bearden, whose husband is in the military, was among residents who gathered outside the base in hopes of sending the message to Welsh that the community doesn’t want the Air Force’s role in the city to be diminished.
"It’s not important that we see the general but it’s very important that the general sees us, and sees that we are wanting him to recognize the value of this base," Bearden told the Times Record.
Drew Nash, a former pilot, lifted his son onto his shoulders to see the lines of people gathering Friday morning.
"The 188th is the best Air National Guard unit in the country, it’s the best location for training, it’s got the best air space, the best ranges, the best people and the best facilities," he said. "It’s a national asset."
Information from: Southwest Times Record, http://www.swtimes.com/