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The Omaha World Herald December 19, 2012

Drones to replace F-16 fighter jets over Des Moines

By Andrew J. Nelson

The roar of F-16 fighter jets streaking across the sky over Des Moines on training missions will soon be silenced.

Under a budget deal set for approval this week, the Iowa National Guard's 132nd Fighter Wing will lose the jets. The decision comes after months of wrangling between Iowa's congressional delegation and the Air Force.

The 132nd has flown F-16s on missions in Afghanistan in recent years.

Now, after 70 years of flying manned aircraft, the wing will fly remote-controlled unmanned planes, according to the proposal. The aircraft will be based elsewhere, possibly overseas.

U.S. House and Senate negotiators agreed to a deal this week that will mean the removal of all 21 jets from the Des Moines Air National Guard Base. The House could approve the defense spending bill as soon as today and the Senate on Friday. President Barack Obama is expected to sign it.

The provisions are part of an overall defense authorization bill, which means Congress must either reject or accept the entire bill.

The agreement ends a months-long standoff between the House-Senate defense authorization conference committee and the Air Force.

An earlier plan called for a cut of nearly 380 jobs out of 1,000. Congressional aides said that number could now be as low as 32.

Still, the loss of the F-16s will reverberate throughout the Des Moines economy, said Rep. Tom Latham, R-Iowa, whose newly redrawn district includes the city and the air base.

“There's a lot of private-sector jobs in support of these aircraft that will be lost,” he said. “It's very unfortunate, and I think an unwise decision.”

Latham, who pointed out that Air Guard pilots and ground crews are typically more experienced than their active-duty brethren, said he will introduce a bill to keep the Air Force from taking the F-16s out of Iowa. But it will probably not be successful.

“In all reality, I don't believe the (Armed Services) Committee will take up my bill or look at it,” he said.

Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, said he remains concerned over the Air Force's rationale for removing the F-16 mission from Iowa.

“There were a number of alternatives to singling out one of the best performing, most professional units in the Air Force, the 132nd Wing,” he said. “These alternatives never received serious consideration.”

Gov. Terry Branstad is “deeply disappointed” in the decision, said his spokesman Tim Albrecht.

Iowa Guard spokesman Col. Greg Hapgood said he could not yet comment in depth on the proposed change but said it was driven by economics.

“You have to figure out where can we do more with less, and these are the decisions the Air Force has made,” he said.

The 132nd traces its roots to before World War II, when the 124th Observation Squadron was organized in 1941. In a recent deployment to Afghanistan, the unit's fighter pilots flew more than 800 combat missions, logging more than 3,200 hours. F-16s have flown out of Des Moines since 1992.

But unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones, are the wave of the future, said John Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.org, a military information website. The biggest reason is that they are less expensive to operate than fighter aircraft.

“The circumstances where you would use tactical aviation have diminished over the past decade,” he said.

Drones can also linger over the battlefield longer, and pilot fatigue is not a factor, he said. And if one is shot down, no crew members are killed.

Iowa Guard officials said most of the aircraft were slated for retirement between 2018 and 2020.

The airmen of Iowa are not alone. The Air Force also plans to take 20 A-10s from the Arkansas Air National Guard and 24 A-10Cs from a Louisiana-based Air Force Reserve unit, according to the Air Force Times.

This report includes material from the Associated Press.

Copyright 2012, The Omaha World Herald