HomeUSAAir National Guard Units 'Orphaned' Amid Space National Guard Debate

Air National Guard Units ‘Orphaned’ Amid Space National Guard Debate

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When the Space Force was established in late 2019, more than 1,000 Air National Guard members focused on space missions were left behind. A debate about their future is still raging, leaving the airmen in limbo some three years later.

Lawmakers are debating a new Space National Guard that could leave the 16 space-focused guard units, including seven in Colorado, in place. They’ve come to be known as “orphan units,” left behind in an Air Force that is no longer technically responsible for training or equipping them.

The Space Force could also start a new model backed by Gen. Chance Saltzman, chief of space operations, that would allow active duty guardians to work part time and hold civilian jobs. In an October 2022 policy statement the Biden administration said it supported transitioning the guard missions into the active Space Force to avoid the cost of a Space National Guard, a contested number.

While Congress weighs options, Colorado airmen don’t have clarity to plan their lives.

“If there is no Space National Guard, our world is going to change,” said Maj. Matt Friedell, director of operations for the 138th Electromagnetic Warfare Squadron at Peterson Space Force Base.

The squadron of about 100 people selectively deny enemy communications in the field by jamming satellites, an in-demand capability, he said. The unit also establishes satellite communications.

The work could be reassigned to active-duty Space Force members and the National Guardsmen could transition as well if a Space National Guard is not established. But the transition could be expensive, time-consuming and leaving the guard for an active-duty position may not appeal to many, said Col. Stephanie Figueroa, who oversees the 138th and other space-focused missions in Colorado as part of the 233rd Space Group.

She expects it would take five to seven years to transition all the Guard missions to the active-duty forces and in the process the expertise of guardsmen who also work in industry at aerospace companies such as Ball Aerospace and Lockheed Martin would be lost. She expects very few guardsmen would transfer back into active duty.

“You will get some that will go over. … Not as many as they think or need,” she said.

At the same time, demand for the 138th Squadron’s ability to interrupt communications is high and those services may have to be expanded to meet the needs of combatant commanders, she said. Combatant commanders call on service members from all branches to counter threats.

In the cold rain and wind Thursday, the 138th and Air National Guard members from Mississippi used a forklift to push a large collapsible satellite antenna into a hulking C-17 Globemaster III. About 20 guardsmen were headed for Joint Base Andrews in Maryland, along with all their gear loaded on pallets for training with other electromagnetic warfare squadrons from California, Hawaii and Florida. Another unit focused on missile warning from Alaska planned to attend, as well, Friedell said.

The entire trip provides training, he said, right down to the details of putting ramps in place to get satellite antennas onto the plane.

Training for travel is key, because the squadron has been deploying more often than the typical 18- to 24-month cycle, because satellite jamming services are in need. He expects 17 guardsmen to go to Africa in the fall, the third deployment for the squadron since its creation in 2019.

If the unit’s duties transitioned to the active Space Force, the unit probably would have to train its replacements and could potentially receive a new mission, such as cyber communications, Friedell said.

Leaving units in place under a Space National Guard would maintain a system that is working, he said.

For decision-makers, a key sticking point is cost.

A Congressional Budget Office analysis found that a new Space National Guard just for the existing units probably would need $100 million annually to support administrative overhead. In addition to $20 million for additional facilities. A larger Space National Guard, between 3,400 and 4,300 people, could cost $385 million-$490 million a year, the CBO estimated. The current Space Force is about 8,000 people.

The adjutants general who oversee the National Guards in each state pushed back on the estimates in an open letter in March, citing an estimate by the National Guard Bureau that expected $250,000 could cover heraldry, uniform items and the transfer of existing manpower and resources from existing units to a new Space National Guard.

The letter also noted that a Space National Guard has bipartisan support.

In May, Republican Rep. Doug Lamborn, R- Colorado Springs, and Rep. Jason Crow, D- Aurora, co-sponsored the latest House bill to create a Space National Guard.

“I am encouraged to see more momentum and support from national defense leaders this year as we restart this conversation,” Lamborn said in a statement.

Saltzman, a key player in the conversation, urged action in recent congressional testimony, saying Space Force could leave the space-focused missions in the Air National Guard, but that would be “the most untenable position.”

He asked senators to consider the proposal to create part-time guardians in the Space Force that could hold civilian jobs and work as part of the active-duty force. While it sounds similar to a National Guard model, it is more integrated. It would allow members to transfer to full time more easily and retain talent within Space Force, he said.

It’s an option that would sever the community ties that the Guard builds, when they jump in to help with wildfires, floods and other emergencies, Friedell said.

“It’s such a good feeling that if something goes bad, we go help immediately,” he said.

Maj. Tanya N. Downsworth, with the secretary of the Air Force Public Affairs, said in a written statement if the Space Force pursued the model Saltzman is promoting, “additional structure options” could also be examined.

___

(c)2023 The Gazette (Colorado Springs, Colo.)

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