FORT SMITH — Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh III has informed members of Arkansas’ congressional delegation and others that he will visit the 188th Fighter Wing stationed here before a final decision is reached regarding the unit’s future, according to a former 188th commander.

Retired Col. Kevin Wear, former 188th commander and chairman of the 188th Fighter Wing Community Steering Committee, said Welsh informed both U.S. Sens. John Boozman, R-Ark., and Mark Pryor, D-Ark., as well as a former 188th pilot who emailed the general and requested he visit the unit that he would make the visit.

However, a date for the visit has not yet been arranged. Wear said he and others are hopeful the date will be set soon.

Last week, both the U.S. House and U.S. Senate passed a $640.5 billion defense authorization bill that would remove the A-10 jet fighter mission from the 188th.

During an emergency teleconference with Pryor’s staff Dec. 21, Wear said area leaders were told the Air Force plan was to replace the A-10 mission with a "remote piloted aircraft" — drones — mission.

The Air Force recommended the change in February, when it proposed sweeping reductions to the Air National Guard as part of its 2013 budget, which Congress blocked until last week, when both chambers approved a defense bill restoring that authority.

Once the bill reaches the White House, the president will have 10 days to sign it.

While it appears the 188th is on track for its second mission change in eight years — in August 2005, the Base Realignment and Closure Commission followed the Pentagon recommendation to strip the 188th of its F-16s, but replaced the F-16s with the A-10 — Wear said nothing is final.


Jeff Arnold writes for the Times Record in Fort Smith