WASHINGTON — The Air Force’s top leader said Thursday that the drone mission planned for Fort Smith’s 188th Fighter Wing remains on schedule to begin operating in 2016.
"The intent is to have (the drone mission) operational in the first quarter of Fiscal ’16, which is the plan we have been on since the beginning and we are working the budgetary issues that go with that," said Chief of Staff Gen. Mark A. Welsh III.
Seeking to tamp down concerns raised a day earlier during a Senate hearing, Rep. Steve Womack, R-Rogers, on Thursday asked Welsh to clarify the future of the Air National Guard base in Fort Smith.
On Wednesday, U.S. Sen. Mark Pryor, D-Ark., questioned whether the Pentagon was setting up the Fort Smith base for potential closure because the department’s 2014 budget request did not appear to fund a transition from the current A-10 jet mission to the promised unmanned aircraft mission.
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 offered no real response to Pryor.
On Thursday, Womack asked Welsh to help him reassure the Fort Smith community that "appropriate steps are being taken to ensure the proper budgets are in place" for the drone mission.
"The plans are still in place," Welsh said.
Womack also asked about the enduring nature of the drone mission.
"Clearly, this is at the leading edge of what our combatant commanders expect from their Air Force, which is intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance support. That’s what these units do," Welsh said.