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 workers 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 last 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 Saying the 1970s-era A-10 was outdated and too specialized, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel recommended last month that all 340 Warthogs operated by the Air Force and the Air National Guard be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, which are a much newer model than previously flown at the base.
"It is only right that we proceed briskly into the Air Force of tomorrow as we prepare our base for our strategic future, that being the bed down of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter someday," he said at a news conference at the base.
Augustine said the conversion to the F-16s could take three to five years. He said he will know more details in coming weeks about staffing needs at the facility by Fort Wayne International Airport, where 1,200 people are assigned, about 400 of them in full-time jobs.
Aside from "touchup training" for workers and installing new arresting gear for landing planes, the base is ready for the conversion, Augustine said. A munitions building planned for A-10 weapons will be equally suited for the F-16 arsenal, he said.
Maj. Gen. R. Martin Umbarger, the commander of the Indiana National Guard, said Guard officials and the Hoosier congressional delegation pressed the Pentagon on Fort Wayne's behalf after agreeing to 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 the Pentagon was urged. "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 trade 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 F-16 is a faster jet used for close air support and in air fights with enemy planes.
"The F-16 that we're getting is leaps and bounds ahead of the one that left here. We're highly qualified in that mission already," Augustine said.
Rep. Marlin Stutzman, R-3rd, said local, state and federal officials representing are "making sure this stays a fighter wing." The base has flown fighter jets 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, which was 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.
Sens. Dan Coats, R-Ind., and Joe Donnelly, D-Ind., released statements praising the planned conversion from A-10s to F-16s at the base, although Coats otherwise criticized the White House's proposed budget for its new spending and tax increases.
Augustine said the planned conversion to F-16s "is great news, this is wonderful news, this is exactly what we needed to hear. There's a strategic future out here, a future in fighters. We're excited about it."