Air Force Secretary says 188th Wing is 'leading the way' in unmanned flight operations
By JOHN LOVETT | Times Record, Fort Smith, Ark. | Published: March 27, 2018
FORT SMITH, Ark. (Tribune News Service) — The future of the U.S. Air Force looks a lot like the unmanned flying mission conducted by the 188th Wing at Ebbing Air National Guard Base in Fort Smith.
Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson said Monday after a tour of the base the Arkansas Air National Guard plays a pivotal role in national defense and development of new operations.
"There are some Guard units that did not embrace that change, and they have no mission now," Wilson said of the movement to remotely piloted aircraft. "This is a tremendously important mission, and we shouldn't undermine or downplay the importance of this mission because you don't see something fly off this runway."
Wilson went on to say that the Air Force is moving more toward distributed network operations with remotely piloted aircraft and multi-domain operation
"This Guard unit is leading the way," Wilson said. "So, when you think about what the future of the Air Force is, it looks a whole lot like Fort Smith."
Wilson, a member of Congress for New Mexico from 1998 to 2009 and the 24th secretary of the Air Force, was invited to tour the base and its operations by U.S. Rep. Steve Womack, R-Ark. She was sworn in last May.
Both U.S. Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark., and Womack were with Wilson during the tour Monday.
In 2012, Womack and Boozman were also among the Arkansas delegation to question previous Air Force leadership on why the 188th Fighter Wing's mission was being changed. The 188th had flown A-10 Warthogs and F-16 Falcons for many years.
In the heat of the discussion, the Arkansas delegation had requested the strategic military analysis, readiness study, and budget analysis that led to the Air Force's decision to eliminate the 188th Fighter Wing's A-10 mission. After a meeting with Air Force officials in November 2012, the Arkansas delegation stated it felt the decision for force reductions was not so much an issue of budgetary concerns but "instead based on the capstone principle of maintaining one flying mission per state."
Womack said in a emailed statement Monday the Fort Smith community came to the realization several years ago that manned flying missions were being reduced and "the future was with these new unmanned platforms like the MQ9s. Womack said his involvement was to facilitate the discussions between the community and Air Force leadership.
"The result is what we see today ... the 188th playing a prominent role in national defense with a chance to add to its mission set in the future," Womack said in the email.
The mission change was completed in 2016 following a nearly two-year conversion.
"The 188th is a great example of a community and a mission that embraced the future," Wilson told reporters Monday in a hangar flanked by Womack and Boozman. "The Air Force is heavily dependent on the Guard. Much of our strength is from the Guard ... We are deeply grateful for the partnership with Fort Smith and the state and want to continue to keep it a strong mission here and contributing to the United State Air Force."
Wilson thanked Womack and Boozman for their support in passing the omnibus bill last week that continued a 2.4 percent pay increase to military personnel that started in January. Wilson also noted that another round of budget cuts "would've been devastating" to the military.
In response to the potential for the 188th Wing having a "launch and recovery" mission for unmanned aircraft, Wilson said that it "may be down the road." This added aspect would place aircraft at Fort Chaffee or Ebbing Field for training purposes.
"The most important thing is they have a very important mission here that they are conducting exceptionally well," Wilson said of the 188th Wing's current status.
Brig. Gen. Joseph Wilson, chief of staff to the Arkansas Air National Guard commander, said two issues to address in obtaining a launch-and-recovery mission for the 188th Wing are the no-fly zones over populated areas and simple access to the aircraft. Almost as soon as the remotely piloted aircraft leave the assembly line, they are taken straight to the field, Wilson said.
There are just none to be had for major joint training operations and exercises. That could change though within just a couple years.
Talking to reporters Monday after her tour, Wilson said she was impressed with the "positive attitude" on display by airmen at the 188th Wing.
Boozman, co-chair of the Senate Air Force Caucus, said he was grateful that Wilson spent time Arkansas to see how the state strengthens national security.
"As threats evolve and we ask more of our Air Force, the 188th Wing's future-focused mission will continue to be a critical component to defend our nation and its interests," Boozman said in an issued statement. "I was honored to participate in Secretary Wilson's visit highlighting the capabilities of the men and women at Ebbing Air National Guard Base."
Womack also thanked Wilson for visiting "the dynamic Third District of Arkansas."
"From meeting with local business leaders to touring the 188th Wing, the visit served as a chance to showcase the district's focus on serving our nation's veterans and highlight the capability and importance of the 188th Wing to our military," Womack added in the statement. "I look forward to working with Secretary Wilson to support our men and women in uniform."
Wilson oversees the Air Force's annual budget of more than $132 billion and directs strategy and policy development, risk management, weapons acquisition, technology investments and human resource management across a global enterprise, according to the Air Force website.
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