Longtime military space officers in the National Guard warned Thursday that their home states will lose the ability to surveil wildfires, monitor public demonstrations and conduct other missions if the U.S. does not create a Guard component under the new Space Force.
More than 1,000 airmen are in limbo between an Air Force that has largely ceded space operations to the Space Force, and a Space Force that isn’t authorized to manage Air Guard personnel, three colonels told reporters on a call hosted by the National Guard Association of the United States.
They believe slow-walking a new Space National Guard is causing problems that could spell the end of satellite and radar-support missions in seven U.S. states and Guam.
“If the Space Force takes our space missions from us, then … the state would not — and the Guard would not — be [in] the space portfolio unless there’s some new law change that allows the active duty to support the states, short of a federal emergency being declared,” said Col. Jason Knight, commander of the California Air National Guard’s 195th Operations Group.
When Congress created the Space Force in 2019, it allowed for active duty troops but wanted more time to consider the Pentagon’s suggestions for space reserve components. The government is considering setting up a less-traditional, full-time and part-time workforce that would absorb space-centered units that are still in the Air National Guard and Air Reserve.
The idea could take away a state’s ability to call up its space experts for locally run missions and relegate them to federal activations alone, the airmen said. More than a dozen Air National Guard units handle space ops, including airmen in Alaska, California, Colorado, Florida, Hawaii, New York, Ohio and Guam.
“Why would you want to take away your access to those forces that can do things for the state, that can support during a pandemic, can support during wildfires?” Knight said. “Only [in the] last two to three years have we started to integrate space into the state to help.”
Though the Pentagon has managed space systems for decades, efforts to put that hardware to work for the whole of government are still unfolding.
Col. Adam Rogge, commander of the Colorado Air National Guard’s 223rd Space Group, believes halting that would put state and local governments in a bind as they try to take advantage of the growing ecosystem of space payloads, such as for imagery and internet access.
“With everything going on in Russia, Ukraine, of course China, Iran, we need to have the best space professionals we can,” added Col. Michael Bruno, chief of the joint staff at the Colorado National Guard. Establishing a Space National Guard would give the Space Force the option to quickly surge its capabilities in times of conflict, he said.
If Congress doesn’t go for a Space National Guard, the Air Force may need to foot the bill to transfer the Guard’s space professionals and retrain them for air-focused jobs.
“When those [space] missions go away … those people are still here,” Knight said. “If you take those forces out and you don’t transfer the Aair Guard forces [to the Space Force], which I believe is the plan … then they have to find a new mission for those individuals.”
The 195th Operations Group, for instance, would lose its electronic warfare and satellite command-and-control units.
”Our expectation is those individuals and those billets need to be repurposed into … something that would meet an Air Force requirement to get after our National Defense Strategy,” Knight said.
Any reshuffling of personnel would likely come in the next few years, he added. ANG will know it has a problem if lawmakers don’t write a Space National Guard into the upcoming fiscal 2023 defense policy bill.
“I’m going to have to go and talk to my airmen about, ‘Hey, I’m sorry, we don’t have a job for you here in space. We’re going to have to find something for you,’” Knight said. “That’s going to obviously result in, probably, a lot of folks wanting to leave.”
In the meantime, because Air National Guardsmen in military space jobs still technically report to the Air Force, they must keep track of an increasingly divergent set of regulations, force planning and training.
The colonels contend the units would face more cumbersome bureaucracy if they remained part of the Air Force and be sidelined with lower funding than their air counterparts.
“The Space Force is intending not to fund the readiness program that our current systems fall under the Air Force because it’s no longer tenable,” Knight said. “The way that they assess their readiness is going to be completely different than the way the Air Force does.”
That raises even more questions, like: How would guardsmen report their duty status?
Knight claimed multiple military studies in the past few years have identified a need for a Space National Guard, but were squashed inside the Pentagon.
“I don’t know what the analysis was behind removing the Space National Guard, but for some reason, they decided that the other studies were apparently not in line with what the administration wanted to put forward,” he said.
A standalone Space National Guard would be less expensive and more effective than officials at the White House and other federal agencies have previously claimed, the airmen said.
In 2020, the Congressional Budget Office calculated that the new organization could include as many as 5,800 people, up from approximately 1,500 Air Force and Army space personnel in the National Guard now. A smaller Space National Guard could cost anywhere from $100 million to $490 million a year, and $20 million to $900 million in one-time construction and equipment costs.
In contrast, Knight said, forgoing a Space Guard would require shipping military space assets off of guard installations so the Space Force can absorb them, as well as bringing in new guardians to run them. He said that may cost up to $700 million and take up to a decade to rebuild the operational expertise.
Bruno estimates switching ANG units over to become a Space National Guard would cost just $200,000 for new name tapes and signage at installations.
“No new facilities, no new billets, and the folks that already are taking care of their personnel, medical, defense and everything else that goes with those support functions … those would continue with the forces that are already in place,” he said.
Officials may be able to keep costs low at the state level, but other issues with financial ramifications could crop up at the top. For instance, it’s unclear who would command a Space National Guard, and whether that responsibility would fall to Air National Guard boss Lt. Gen. Michael Loh or an equivalent three-star guardian.
Proponents of a Space Guard have brought some members of Congress on board, but not everyone is convinced.
“What happened to the USSF being new/revolutionary/unique? What happened to redefining how we support the space mission?” Kaitlyn Johnson, an aerospace analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, recently said on Twitter. “Seems to me like [Sens. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and Marco Rubio, R-Fla.] are forcing the opposite values that the USSF was established on to get more money for their states.”
Rachel Cohen is the editor of Air Force Times. She joined the publication as its senior reporter in March 2021. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Frederick News-Post (Md.), Air and Space Forces Magazine, Inside Defense, Inside Health Policy and elsewhere.