Approximately 1,000 Air National Guard troops assigned to space missions are experiencing identity crisis.
Their units, torn between the Air Force, where they have traditionally been assigned, and the military’s gleaming new Space Force, where they now work, have become orphans, according to commanders, as state and federal leaders debate whether to form a Space National Guard.
For federal officials, the issue is primarily about money. They claim that a Space Guard would add unnecessary bureaucracy and cost up to $500 million per year. They argue that putting a new name on a patch for an airman who is doing the same job at the same desk as a year ago is too expensive.
But state Guard leaders say it’s more than just uniform patches at stake. They claim that the split has resulted in budget gaps, training delays, and recruiting issues, and that if not resolved, it will result in larger divisions, eroding unit readiness in some of the nation’s most critical space warfighting and nuclear command and control jobs.
The state leaders are not convinced by the money argument. They claim that a Space Guard will only be needed in seven states and Guam, where Air Guard members already support space missions. They estimate that the cost of new signs, tags, and other administrative changes will be around $250,000.
“When they took away all of the space operators from the Air Force, the Air Force no longer does 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 Force personnel involved in space missions to the new Space Force. “They abandoned us in the Air Force.” So, for lack of a better term, we were orphaned. We were left to fend for ourselves.”
There are 1,008 Air National Guard citizen-airmen working in space in Alaska, California, Colorado, Florida, Hawaii, New York, Ohio, and Guam.
Many of those Guard members are involved in the highly sensitive and technical military satellite communications and missile warning systems used by the United States. They are in charge of ensuring that those systems can survive and operate in both peacetime and wartime conditions.
In June 2018, President Donald Trump directed the formation of a Space Force. However, it had already been discussed within the Air Force as a means of better defending US interests in space, particularly navigation and communication satellites.
The Space Force, unlike the Army, Navy, and Air Force, does not have its own military department. Instead, it is overseen by the Air Force secretary, is led by a four-star general, and provides forces to the United States Space Command, which oversees the military’s space operations.
To cut costs and avoid creating a massive space bureaucracy, the Space Force only has a few military career fields: primarily space operations, cyber, and intelligence jobs. Active-duty airmen assigned to those missions were renamed Space Force Guardians.
There are approximately 7,000 active-duty Guardians and a similar number of civilians, with an annual budget of approximately $18 billion. Other duties, such as legal, medical, public affairs, and some administrative positions, are still performed by Air Force personnel.
The White House and the Office of Management and Budget appear to be the main opponents of establishing a small Space Guard. The budget office stated in September that it was strongly opposed to a Space National Guard, citing Congressional Budget Office estimates that it would cost approximately $500 million per year.
“Creating a Space National Guard would not provide new capabilities; rather, it would create new government bureaucracy,” the OMB stated. “Since the establishment of the Space Force, the Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve units with space missions have effectively performed their roles with no adverse effect on DOD’s space mission.” DOD is an abbreviation for the Department of Defense.
While having a Space Guard was part of the original Air Force plan, funding constraints have become the deciding factor. There are worries that creating a Guard structure would mean more overhead costs, including the need for a Space Guard commander and other senior staff. Also, there is a distant fear that once that structure was in place, other states could lobby for their own units, again expanding the costs.