Air Guard troops on space missions face identity crisis

National Guard of the Space Force (ASSOCIATED PRESS)

About 1,000 Air National Guard soldiers who are assigned to space missions are embroiled in an identity crisis.

Torn between the Air Force, where they were historically assigned, and the military’s shiny new Space Force, where they now work, their units have become orphans, according to commanders, as state and federal leaders squabble over creating a National Space Guard. .

For federal officials, the issue is primarily about money. A Space Guard, they say, will create unnecessary bureaucracy and cost up to $500 million a year. They argue that it’s too high a price to put a new name on a patch for an aviator doing the same job on the same desk as a year ago.

But State Guard leaders say more than just patching up the uniform is at stake. They say the division has caused budget gaps, training delays and recruitment problems and, if left unresolved, will lead to larger divisions, eroding the readiness of units in some of the country’s critical space combat and nuclear command and control work.

State leaders don’t buy the money argument. They say a Space Guard will be needed in just seven states and Guam, where Air Guard members supporting space missions already reside. The cost, they say, will be just $250,000 for new plates, tags and other administrative changes.

“When they removed all the space operators from the Air Force, the Air Force has no more space,” said Air Guard Lieutenant Colonel Jeremiah Hitchner, commander of the 109th Electromagnetic Space Warfare Squadron in Guam.

Hitchner was referring to the decision to transfer active-duty Air Force troops carrying out space missions to the new Space Force. “They left us in the Air Force. So we are – for lack of a better term – orphans. We were left alone to survive.”

Nationwide, there are 1,008 Air National Guard aviators doing space work in Alaska, California, Colorado, Florida, Hawaii, New York, Ohio and Guam.

Many of these Guard members work with highly sensitive and technical US military communications and missile warning systems. They are responsible for ensuring that these systems can survive and operate in all conditions of peace and war.

President Donald Trump ordered the creation of a Space Force in June 2018. But even before that, it was already under discussion within the Air Force as a way to better defend US interests in space, especially navigation and communication satellites.

Unlike the Army, Navy and Air Force, the Space Force is not its own military department. Instead, it is administered by the Secretary of the Air Force, led by a four-star general, and provides forces for the US Space Command, which oversees the military’s space operations.

To limit costs and avoid establishing a vast space bureaucracy, only a few military career fields were created for the Space Force: primarily space operations, cyber and intelligence work. The active-duty aviators who were doing these missions became Space Force Guardians.

There are around 7,000 active Guardians and a similar number of civilians, with a budget of around $18 billion for this fiscal year. Other functions – including legal, medical, public relations and some administrative positions – continue to be performed by Air Force personnel.

Opposition to the creation of a small Space Guard appears to be centered around the White House and the Office of Management and Budget. Last September, the budget office said it was strongly opposed to a National Space Guard, citing Congressional Budget Office estimates that it could cost about $500 million a year.

“Establishing a National Space Guard would not provide new capabilities – instead it would create a new government bureaucracy,” the OMB said. “Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve units with space missions have effectively performed their roles without any adverse effect on the DOD space mission since the establishment of the Space Force.” DOD refers to the Department of Defense.

Although having a Space Guard was part of the Air Force’s initial plan, funding limits became the overriding issue. There are concerns that creating a Guard structure will mean more overhead costs, including the need for a Space Guard commander and other senior staff. In addition, there is a distant fear that, once this structure is in place, other states could lobby for their own units, driving up costs again.

In the states, Guard members say they are struggling with increasing bureaucracy and that it is becoming more difficult to get training spots for new recruits.

Sitting alongside the Space Guardians on active duty, Air Guard members say they are doing their same jobs, but without a formal link to the Space Force. As the Space Force develops its own job descriptions and requirements, Air Guard troops complain that it is harder to get promoted in space mission jobs.

“We need to be aligned with people who understand the space mission, have responsibility for the space mission and have all the authority and alignment in the space mission,” said Senior Sgt. Harry Smith, flight chief of the 137th Space Alert Squadron in Colorado. “The Air Force must focus on air power.”

Commanders said that over time, the disconnect will get worse. Already, they said, funding is becoming an issue because they are requesting money from the Air Force for a Space Force mission or equipment.

“Space Force and Air Force now have their own lines of funding. They are appropriated completely differently,” Hitchner said. “That’s a problem for me because I’m on the air side trying to spend Space Force money. Sometimes it’s legally impossible.”

Some members of Congress are pushing for a Space Guard, citing many of the same reasons for efficiency and bureaucracy. Legislation was proposed but not passed.

In a letter to President Joe Biden, the US National Guard Association argued that the OMB incorrectly inflated the price and ignored Air Force studies that concluded that creating a Guard would be more efficient.

“The staff is already on the payroll and the equipment and facilities are ready.” said retired Brig. Gen. J. Roy Robinson, president of the association. “A Space National Guard may grow in the future, but only to meet the requirements specified by the Space Force.”

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