Airguard troops on space missions face identity crisis

WASHINGTON (AP) — About 1,000 Air National Guard troops assigned to space missions are facing an identity crisis.

Torn between the Air Force, where they have traditionally been assigned, and the Army’s gleaming new Space Forces where they now serve, their units have been orphaned, according to commanders, as state and federal leaders argue over whether or not to create a Space. National Guard.

For the federal government, it is mainly about the money. A Space Guard, they say, will create unnecessary bureaucracy and cost up to $500 million a year. They argue it’s too high a price to put a new name on a patch for a pilot doing the same job at the same agency as a year ago.

But leaders of the state guard say there is more at stake than just uniform patches. They say the split has led to budget gaps, training delays and recruiting problems, and if not resolved it will lead to greater divisions, affecting unit readiness in some of the critical space warfare and nuclear commando and control functions of the country is being eroded.

The state leaders do not believe in the money argument. They say a Space Guard will be needed in only seven states and Guam, where the Air Guard members who support space missions already reside. The cost, they say, will only be about $250,000 for new signs, labels and other administrative changes.

“When they removed all space operators from the Air Force, the Air Force no longer actually uses space,” said Air Guard Lt. Col. Jeremiah Hitchner, commander of the 109th Space Electromagnetic Warfare Squadron in Guam.

Hitchner was referring to the decision to transfer active duty air forces performing space missions to the new Space Force. “They left us in the Air Force. So we were – for lack of a better term – orphaned. We were left alone to survive.”

Across the country, there are 1,008 Air National Guard civilian airmen who perform space operations in Alaska, California, Colorado, Florida, Hawaii, New York, Ohio, and Guam.

Many of those Guard members work with America’s highly sensitive and technical military satellite communications and missile warning systems. They are responsible for ensuring that those systems can survive and function under all peace and war conditions.

President Donald Trump ordered the creation of a space force in June 2018. But even before that, there was discussion within the air force as a way to better defend American interests in space, especially navigation and communications satellites.

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

To reduce costs and avoid creating a huge space bureaucracy, only a few military career areas were created for the Space Force: mainly space operations, cyber and intelligence functions. Active duty airmen who performed these missions became Space Force Guardians.

There are approximately 7,000 active Guardians and a similar number of citizens, with a budget of approximately $18 billion for this fiscal year. Other duties, including legal, medical, public affairs and some administrative functions, are still performed by Air Force personnel.

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

“Establishing a Space National Guard would not create new capabilities — it would instead create new government bureaucracy,” OMB said. “The Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve units with space missions have performed their duties effectively without harming DOD’s space mission since the creation of the Space Force.” DOD refers to the Department of Defense.

While having a space guard was part of the Air Force’s original plan, funding limits have become the predominant issue. There are concerns that creating a Guard structure would involve increased overheads, including the need for a Space Guard commander and other senior personnel. Also, there is a distant fear that once that structure was in place, other states could lobby for their own units, again increasing costs.

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

Sitting next to the active Space Guardians, the members of the Air Guard say they do the same job, but without a formal link to the Space Force. As the Space Force develops its own job descriptions and requirements, Air Force troops complain that it is more difficult 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 authorities and alignment in the space mission,” said Senior Master Sgt. Harry Smith, flight chief of the 137th Space Warning Squadron in Colorado. “The Air Force must focus on Air Force.”

Commanders said that over time, the connection will deteriorate. They have already said that funding is becoming a problem because they are asking the Air Force for money for a mission or equipment from the Space Force.

“The Space Force and Air Force now have their own fund lines. They’re appropriated completely differently,” Hitchner said. “That’s a problem for me because I’m in the air trying to spend Space Force money. Sometimes it is not legally possible.”

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

In a letter to President Joe Biden, the US National Guard Association argued that OMB had mistakenly inflated the price tag 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 in place.” said retired Brig. Gene. J. Roy Robinson, the president of the association. “A Space National Guard could grow in the future, but only to meet the requirements of the Space Force.”

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