Move Guardsmen into the Space Force? You’ll lose most of them instead

by Braxton Taylor

Senior Air Force officials have scoffed at surveys that show that only 14 percent of Air National Guard space professionals would be willing to transfer to the Space Force if it absorbs their units.

Apparently, these officials believe that more Guardsmen will eventually go along if Congress approves the leaders’ proposal to move space-related Guard units to the Space Force without their governors’ consent.

But if they’re wrong—that is, if the Air Force gets its way and only 14 percent are willing to go—these units would be markedly degraded, and the nation would lose a significant portion of its military space capability at a critical time.   

I spent nearly 25 years in the Air National Guard, and I agree that the survey results are off. The figure is almost certainly less than 14 percent.

My career took me to units in Iowa, Arizona, Arkansas and the District of Columbia. There was a common thread in each location: Unit members were happy with the opportunities for service the Air National Guard provided, and the concurrent life out of uniform it allowed. 

The Air National Guard appeals to people who want to serve both their country and their community. They take an oath to both their governor and the president. Many spend entire careers in one unit, which becomes their second family.  Many, like me, have served in the same unit as a parent once did.

Additionally, two of every three serve part-time. The Air National Guard enables them to live where they want, pursue their chosen civilian career, and make an operational contribution to the Air Force.

Those operation contributions are substantial. Air National Guardsmen provide 37 percent of the Air Force’s air-refueling capability, 34 percent of the airlift capability, and 25 percent of the fighter capability. They also provide 30 percent of the U.S. military’s space capability at a moment in time when we can’t afford to fall behind.

The Air National Guardsmen I know would never jump from the certainty, flexibility, and opportunity of the National Guard to all the unknowns of the single-component Space Force, including a new arrangement that its leaders admit will take five years to fully put in place.

This is the great irony of the Air Force proposal. Officials say keeping space units in the National Guard requires too much bureaucracy. Yet it will take half a decade to build the administrative functions to manage both full-time and part-time personnel in the Space Force.

In the interim, there would be no home for the part-timers—our “traditional Guardsmen”—in the Space Force. Even when the new service finally begins to accept part-time personnel, their opportunities will be limited. Space Force leaders have said they don’t want our highly experienced part-timers in “operational” roles. They would be relegated to training and administrative assignments.

This is more bad news for part-time Air National Guard space professionals, and for our nation’s space capability writ large. Many work full-time for aerospace or hi-tech companies, and they bring civilian-acquired skills not taught at any Space Force school. They don’t serve in the Air National Guard for the money. They serve to make a contribution.

It’s one more factor contributing to the low interest in transferring to the Space Force.

Transferring these units would destroy them. They could be rebuilt, but at an extremely high cost, and taking time that we don’t have to spare. The National Guard Bureau says it would cost nearly $1 billion and up to nine years to return these units to their current level of expertise.

Meanwhile, the U.S. military will have diminished space capabilities at a crucial time when Russia and China are rushing to bolster their presence in space. 

What’s the rush? In a world where the United States needs dominance in this ever more competitive domain, why are they in a hurry to decrease our capacity? Air Force officials should hold off and maintain the Air National Guard space units while the Space Force builds its single-component concept, and then revisit without degrading capability.

The nation can’t afford to lose Air National Guard space talent. That will be one of the few certainties if Congress approves the Air Force’s misguided legislative proposal.     

Bobbi Doorenbos, a retired brigadier general in the Air National Guard, is the Retired/Separated-Air representative on the board of directors of the National Guard Association of the United States. 

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