WASHINGTON — Lawmakers have pointed out a glaring omission in the Trump administration’s plan to establish a Space Force: It does not create a Space National Guard.
“The Department of Defense has not yet decided what role the Guard and Reserve will play in this new service,” Senate Armed Services Committee Ranking Member Jack Reed (D-R.I.) told DoD officials during a hearing April 11 on the administration’s Space Force proposal.
Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) said he was surprised to hear from committee staff that DoD was “not really sure what the reserve components role would be” and that those decisions would be pushed until after the Space Force is stood up. He questioned why DoD is asking lawmakers to vote on a proposal that does not have a “real plan for a National Guard or reserve.”
In response, Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson said: “It is impossible for me to imagine a Space Force without a reserve component.”
That answer might not be enough to satisfy National Guard leaders and their congressional supporters. In a white paper circulated on Capitol Hill, the National Guard Bureau calls for the establishment of a Space National Guard as a reserve component to the Space Force.
When Guard forces today are called to active duty, troops from the Air National Guard are aligned with the Air Force, and those from the Army National Guard are aligned with the Army. If a Space Force is authorized by Congress, it would be placed under the Air Force. The Guard is arguing that a Space National Guard should be aligned with the Space Force as the parent service responsible to organize, train and equip forces.
Adjutants general from several states last year raised the issue with Air Force senior leaders after Wilson in a September memo laid out her vision for how to organize a Space Force. In the memo she suggested the Army and Air National Guard units performing space duties might be transferred to the Reserves.
A senior defense official told SpaceNews that Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan believes the Guard question “needs further thought.” DoD’s position is that the Guard will play a “critical role going forward” and Guard space forces will be relied upon to support military operations. But the headquarters organization remains an open question, he said. “Will they report to the Air Guard as they do now or do we need a Space Guard element? It’s a legitimate debate,” the official said.
In meetings with defense committees in recent weeks, DoD officials were insistent that the Guard would be an important piece of the military’s space organization but they have been reluctant to commit to standing up a Space National Guard out of concern that it would open the door for more states to want to get in the game and build up a larger than needed bureaucracy.
Currently seven states have National Guard space units: Alaska, California, Colorado, Florida, New York, Arkansas and Ohio. Multiple states have Army National Guard space experts supporting deployed divisions and brigades.
DoD worries that eventually more states will want to have their own Space National Guard to fuel economic growth. “How do you do it so it doesn’t get out of control?” another official told SpaceNews on condition of anonymity so he could speak candidly about a politically sensitive issue. He said the Pentagon would rather not address this now and wait until after the Space Force is established to figure out how Guard forces should be structured to support the new branch.
The Guard’s white paper suggests its leaders want this issue settled sooner rather than later. And it stresses that there will be no added costs unless the parent service increases the demand. “The National Guard Bureau is prepared to establish a Space National Guard leveraging existing resources,” the paper says. And any “mission growth” would be dictated by the service’s requirements.
Concerns about unchecked expansion if a Space National Guard were stood up are unfounded, Col. Jason Knight, the National Guard Bureau’s Space Division Chief, said in an interview with SpaceNews on Wednesday.
“There is no plan for growth beyond what the services have requested,” he said. Mission requirements “follow a deliberate basing process.” Both the Army and Air Force identify their operational needs and “look across the total force to decide how they’re going to best apply resources to meet the need,” Knight said.
Today there are 1,398 National Guard members conducting space duties: 1,233 in support of the Air National Guard, and 165 under the Army National Guard. Space missions include strategic missile warning, space situational awareness, space control, satellite command and control, National Reconnaissance Office support and Joint Force space support.
The National Guard has a unique status because by statute its members are under the control of the governors of their home states under U.S. Code Title 32 but they can be called to military active duty under Title 10.
On the question of why a governor would need a Space National Guard, Knight explained: “The National Guard provides state and federal leaders strategic options due to our unique statutory flexibility. This means that our force can, and often do, support our state and local communities in addition to the federal mission.”
Space is inherently a Title 10 mission, but DoD would benefit by having a Space National Guard, the white paper notes, because Guard units are trained in Title 32 status and would not have to pay additional costs for that training. Knight noted that costs are incurred by the active component only when forces are activated.
“The fact that our forces typically spend a long time maintaining, training and operating on space weapon systems results in building and enhancing our warfighting capability,” he said. A close partnership between active and reserve space forces, he said, “will only become more important in the future to maintain space superiority across all levels of warfare.”