WASHINGTON – The 188th Fighter Wing and other Air Guard squadrons shifting to a "drone" mission will be able to draw from a $40 million transition fund Congress included in fiscal year 2014 spending.
The transition money is available to six Air National Guard squadrons that are moving to "MQ-1/9 Remote Split Operations" where guardsmen will direct unmanned planes from afar. It was included in a larger $1.1 trillion "omnibus" spending bill that President Obama signed into law on Friday.
Brig. Gen. Travis D. Balch said Wednesday that he assumes money for the conversion of the Arkansas Air Guard is now in place.
The Arkansas Air Guard commander said the process of shifting from an A-10 mission at Fort Smith to a remotely piloted aircraft, targeting and intelligence unit is on schedule. Balch, however, did not know how much funding would be needed to complete the process over the next few years.
"I’m making an assumption that the money for that conversion will be there as I needed," he said.
The Air Force had not included any specific funding for the transitions in its 2014 budget request to Congress, prompting concern from members of the Arkansas delegation.
U.S. Sen. Mark Pryor, D-Ark., first raised the issue at a May meeting with Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh.
Rep. Steve Womack, R-Rogers, who serves on the House Appropriations Committee, got $50 million set aside specifically for the transitions. The bill was later approved by the full House and supported by the four Arkansas representatives.
The Senate Appropriations Committee drafted a defense spending bill for 2014 that included $35.7 million for the transitions, but the full Senate did not consider the bill. The $40 million figure was negotiated by House and Senate conferees hammering out the $1.1 trillion omnibus bill.
How the $40 million will be divided among the six Air Guard squadrons will be up to the Air Force to determine. Congress, however, has directed Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James to submit within the next three months plans detailing the funding, training, manning and equipping of all six squadrons.
The omnibus bill also requires that training begin at all six during the 2014 fiscal year and that additional funding needed to equip the squadrons be included in the Air Force’s 2015 budget request.
Pryor said Wednesday that he has lead countless meetings with Air Force leaders over the last two years to ensure the transition funding needed to help keep hundreds of jobs in the Fort Smith region.
"I am proud that the 188th’s proud legacy of service to our country will continue," Pryor said.
Womack declined to comment for this article but back in June said the transition funding was critical especially for those looking to train up to the new mission.