Many supporters of the Air National Guard base in Fort Wayne who were happy to hear it would remain open haven’t given up pushing for a mission that would keep its employment level from shrinking.
The 122nd Fighter Wing at the base next to Fort Wayne International Airport has been converting to A-10 “Warthog” fighter jets from the F-16s it stopped using in 2010. Assigned 18 primary aircraft for the A-10 mission, the base employs 350 full time and about 650 part time to fly the jets and support their operation. A quartermaster unit also employs about 200 there.
To cut costs, the U.S. Air Force is recommending another mission change, which would replace the A-10s with nine to 11 MC-12s, which are medium- to low-altitude, twin-engine turboprop aircraft used for surveillance, reconnaissance and providing intelligence.
Information about the effect of the switch to MC-12s would have on employment was not available during the first few days after the Air Force recommendation was announced. But some of the support for keeping the A-10 mission there has been based on an assumption that fewer employees would be needed for an MC-12 mission with about half as many aircraft.
The 122nd Fighter Wing has been flying fighter aircraft for more than 65 years, and its commander, Col. David Augustine, said in a statement it was good news that the base will not close as it had been speculated, and “should we transition to the MC-12, our airmen will fly it proudly and fulfill our mission with the skill and unwavering dedication that the Blacksnakes have always been known for.”
But he acknowledged “there is certainly concern among our members that if this decision is not reversed, that it will end a legacy of historic and proud service flying fighter aircraft here at the 122nd Fighter Wing.”
The National Guard’s adjutant general for Indiana, Maj. Gen. Martin Umbarger, “will pursue on behalf of Governor Daniels, our congressional delegation and the Fort Wayne Base Community Council the ability to keep the A-10 Warthog fighter jet at Fort Wayne,” Augustine said.
A statement from U.S. Rep. Marlin Stutzman, R-3rd District, said he led members of Indiana’s Congressional delegation in sending a letter to the Air Force’s chief of staff, Gen. Norton Schwartz, urging him to weigh the full value of the A-10s in Fort Wayne and asking if the Air Force will be able to fulfill the close air support role as effectively without them.
“The A-10 excels at ground attack, not just bombing, but strafing at low altitude. Because the A-10 was designed specifically for this type of attack, it has proven to be an extremely cheap and durable aircraft. Is the F-35 or any other platform as durable and able to withstand fire from the ground?” the letter asked.
“As $2.25 billion was just spent to upgrade and extend the life of service of the A-10, is the Air Force weighing the value of such a significant investment?” it asked.
The area’s congressional delegation and Fort Wayne Base Community Council are not the only ones pushing to keep the A-10 mission at the base.
Mike Landram, president and CEO of the Greater Fort Wayne Chamber of Commerce, wrote a letter in support of funding for the 122nd Fighter Wing in Fort Wayne, partly because of its $58-million impact on the area’s economy as one of its major employers.
The letter, submitted to legislators and government officials, including Umbarger, pointed out that a defense business cluster in the area made it a logical place for a base, and $100 million has been spent developing the base since 2001.
That has been a good investment because “the operational efficiency of the base is extremely high, operating at 28 cents on the dollar, compared to active duty bases,” a chamber announcement about Landram’s letter explained.
“The chamber plans to remain actively engaged in this issue, acting as an advocate for the Fort Wayne community to ensure Indiana’s only reserve fighter wing isn’t negatively impacted by the Defense Department’s decision to trim its budget,” it said.
The chamber said that position did not change after the Air Force announced it was not recommending closure of the base.
Rob Young, an executive at CME Corp. and president of the base community council’s nine-member board, said the council would advocate for the Air National Guard base and an A-10 mission there “even if it’s a one-way conversation, with folks at the Pentagon and the Congressional delegation in Washington and the state delegation.”
The Air Force has announced plans to retire 286 aircraft as part of a new defense strategy and to comply with Budget Control Act requirements to cut $487 billion from the defense budget over the next 10 years. The plans target 102 A-10s for retirement.
The Air Force share of the defense budget cut comes to about $50 billion, it said. Its force structure plans include the retirement of 191 Air National Guard aircraft. In addition to retirement of the A-10s in Fort Wayne, 20 A-10s are scheduled to be retired at an Air National Guard base in Fort Smith, Ark., and 21 are scheduled to be retired at an Air National Guard base in Selfridge, Mich.
The 122nd Fighter Wing would start losing its A-10s this fall and begin bringing in the MC-12 aircraft Oct. 1, 2013.
Young questioned retiring more A-10s from Air National Guard than Air Force operations, saying “that doesn’t seem to make any sense if this is being done in the name of cost cutting.”
With the local Air National Guard base meeting the high performance standards for its mission at only 28 percent of the cost of an Air Force base, Pentagon planners should “cut what is most expensive,” he said.
“Don’t cut what is most effective,” Young said.
Not counting the quartermaster unit, employment at the base decreased by about 100 as a result of accepting the A-10 mission, but the conversion allowed the 122nd Fighter Wing to keep flying jets well into the time frame when F-35s will be delivered to the Air National Guard and Air Force.
Officials at the base have said it was chosen for the A-10 mission because it has a lot of air-to-ground ranges close by and is near one of the largest spin-up training centers at Camp Atterbury.
Last year the base announced a $10-million investment to build new munitions, storage, training and maintenance facilities in support of the conversion to A-10s. Construction on the project has not yet started, and no information was available as of Business Weekly’s deadline on the impact a mission change would have on the project.