FORT WAYNE — Fort Wayne’s Air National Guard base would go back to flying F-16 fighter jets under the fiscal 2015 federal budget proposed Tuesday by the Obama administration.
“They’ll hop back in there, and it will be like putting on an old pair of shoes,” base commander Col. David Augustine said about pilots and plane maintenance personnel at the base.
The 122nd Fighter Wing flew the F-16 Fighting Falcon for two decades until it switched to the A-10 Thunderbolt II “Warthog” in the past four years. Saying the 1970s-era A-10 was outdated and too specialized, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel recommended last month that all 340 Warthogs operated by the Air Force and the Air National Guard be retired.
The Fort Wayne base has 21 of the A-10s. Augustine said he expects the 122nd Fighter Wing will receive at least 18 of the F-16s and that they will be a newer model than previously flown at the base.
“This is great news, this is wonderful news, this is exactly what we needed to hear,” Augustine said at a news conference at the Ferguson Road complex. “There’s a strategic future out here, a future in fighters. We’re excited about it.”
Keeping a fighter wing positions the base as a possible home for the next-generation F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, possibly in 2024, Augustine said. He said the conversion to the F-16s could take at least three years. Details will be announced in coming weeks about manpower requirements at the south-side facility, where 1,200 people are assigned, about 400 of them full-time workers.
Aside from “touch-up training” for personnel and the installation of new arresting gear to slow landing jets, the base is ready for the switch, Augustine said. A munitions building planned for A-10 weapons will be likewise suited for the F-16 arsenal, he said.
Two years ago, the Air Force wanted to replace the A-10s at the base with far fewer MC-12W propeller planes used for intelligence and surveillance.
There also was talk by the Air Force about trading the A-10s for aircraft that transport troops and cargo. With backing from local, state and federal officials, the 122nd Fighter Wing resisted those missions and asked to retain the A-10s or return to the F-16s.
Maj. Gen. R. Martin Umbarger, commander of the Indiana National Guard, said Tuesday that Guard leaders and the Hoosier congressional delegation pressed the Pentagon to preserve Fort Wayne’s fighter wing after accepting base realignments since the early 1990s in Peru, Indianapolis and Terre Haute.
“The business case was, you’ve got a state that’s supported you every time you’ve wanted support,” Umbarger said about the Department of Defense. “We haven’t fought you. We’ve done what you’ve asked us to do. We’ve done what’s right for the nation.
“ … If you’re going to put an F-16 back into the Air Guard, it should come to Fort Wayne,” Umbarger said he and others urged the Pentagon. “We should be the wing of choice. We are. That’s why we got it. It was a good business case to make.”
He said Fort Wayne was the only A-10 base in the Air National Guard to be approved for the F-16. An Idaho base will convert to the F-15 fighter jet, and bases in Michigan and Maryland will swap their A-10s for tanker planes.
“As much as I as an infantry guy absolutely loved the A-10, we could see the handwriting on the wall, behind the scenes, that the Air Force was taking it out of the inventory,” Umbarger said.
The A-10 provides close air support to ground troops. The faster and nimbler F-16 is used both for close air support and air fights with enemy planes.
“The F-16 that we’re getting is leaps and bounds ahead of the one that left here,” Augustine said.
The newer jet is an F-16 Block 40, introduced in the late 1980s. Augustine said it has “a ton of enhancements” not found in the F-16 formerly flown from the local base.
Rep. Marlin Stutzman, R-3rd, said government officials representing Indiana are “making sure this stays a fighter wing.” The base has flown fighter planes since 1947.
“It’s bittersweet to see the A-10s retired, but it’s also very exciting and encouraging to have the F-16s back in Fort Wayne,” Stutzman said at the news conference, attended by about 140 airmen and women at the 122nd Fighter Wing.
Fort Wayne Mayor Tom Henry said the base “adds to that quality of life” of the city as well as providing jobs and security.
“To see the progression of what’s happening here is truly remarkable,” he said.
Gov. Mike Pence and Sens. Dan Coats, R-Ind., and Joe Donnelly, D-Ind., released statements praising the planned conversion of A-10s to F-16s.