WASHINGTON — Backers of the 188th Fighter Wing in Fort Smith plan to launch an online petition campaign this week to save its A-10 mission.

WASHINGTON — Backers of the 188th Fighter Wing in Fort Smith plan to launch an online petition campaign this week to save its A-10 mission.

“We are starting up a website where the community can post letters of support that the congressional delegation will deliver to the secretary of defense,” said Kevin L. Wear, chairman of the 188th Fighter Wing Steering Committee.

Speculation has swirled since November that the 188th Fighter Wing, based at Fort Smith Regional Airport, is on the chopping block. The Pentagon has no public comment on the rumor but is preparing extensive budget cuts over the next decade.

“It’s all speculation at this point but we are preparing for a worst case scenario that we will have to defend keeping the A-10 mission at Fort Smith,” said Wear, a retired Colonel and former 188th commander.

U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta last week provided a broad overview of how the Pentagon anticipates reducing its budget by $487 billion over the next decade. While Panetta made no mention of the 188th, Military Times reported Monday that plans are to cut three of the five Air National Guard A-10 squadrons.

The trade publication based the report on an interview with Adm. James Winnefeld, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Military analysts contacted Tuesday said that it should not come as a surprise that the A-10 Guard squadrons would be in peril.

Loren Thompson, a defense analyst with the Lexington Institute in Arlington, Va., said that, historically, military budget cuts fall first on the Guard.

“There are a number of Guard facilities across the country — in places like Montana and Arkansas — that are likely to take a hit depending on if the local delegation is paying attention,” Thompson said.

John Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.org in Alexandria, Va., said the Air Force has never been a fan of the A-10 mission to provide close air support to Army combat units. And, he noted, that an argument could be made that there is a logistical advantage to using Predator drones for that purpose.

Pike and Thompson said that Congress would play a key role in whether the A-10 squadrons remain.

“All of these budget initiatives are going to be subject to congressional approval,” Pike said.

“This is really a simple question of whether Congress will or will not authorize a change in status of the base. If it funds the existing mission, there won’t be a change,” Thompson said.

The Air National Guard has five A-10 squadrons. The A-10 squadrons in Arkansas, Indiana and Michigan replaced other missions during a 2005 round of base closings and realignments. Maryland and Idaho Guards already had A-10 squadrons.

Wear said the entire Arkansas delegation is supporting the 188th Fighter Wing because it is “by far the most cost effective A-10 unit in the world.”

“If the point is budget cuts you shouldn’t be cutting the most cost effective unit. That is the message we are taking forward,” he said.

Wear expects to have a website up and running by this week where letters can be submitted in support.

“We are going to get the whole community involved,” he said.