WASHINGTON — For the third consecutive year, bipartisan legislation will be moving through the House and Senate aiming to establish a Space National Guard as a reserve component of the U.S. Space Force.
The legislative push, led by lawmakers from Colorado, California and Florida, has encountered stern opposition from the White House Office of Management and Budget which argues that a Space National Guard will introduce additional costs and unnecessary bureaucracy into the system.
A new version of the Space National Guard bill introduced this month by House members from Colorado Jason Crow (D) and Doug Lamborn (R) aims to counter OMB’s case by establishing space units in only seven states and Guam.
That’s all that’s needed to ensure that approximately 1,000 Air National Guard members who support the Space Force can continue to do so without major disruption, Lamborn told SpaceNews.
The bill named the Space National Guard Establishment Act is “our attempt to get around the argument that it has a big price tag,” Lamborn said. “We don’t think that’s true. So this is an attempt to prove that.”
The case against a Space National Guard was bolstered by a 2020 report from the Congressional Budget Office that estimated it would cost anywhere from $100 million to $900 million, assuming every U.S. state and territory established their own space guard units. Those estimates also factored new buildings and a significant growth in staff at the National Guard Bureau.
Guard proponents insist that’s an unfair and inaccurate cost estimate based on false assumptions. They note that outside of the seven states — Colorado, California, Hawaii, Alaska, New York, Ohio, Florida — and Guam, there are no plans to expand in any other state, and that would require separate authorization from Congress anyway. They also point out that the Guard has not asked for any new buildings.
This would be the senators’ third attempt to pass a space guard bill, and Colorado lawmakers’ second consecutive effort.
Compared to a year ago, said Lamborn, “I think more people are coming around to the need for a Space National Guard, especially if we adopt our proposed legislation that concentrates on only eight states. So it’s not a national transition for everyone at the same time.”
The Crow-Lamborn bill is expected to be included in the House version of the National Defense Authorization Act. The fate of the Feinstein-Rubio bill is more uncertain as the Senate has not supported it in years past.
“Saying that the cost is prohibitive is no longer a strong argument now that we’ve narrowed it down,” said Lamborn.
Space Force staying neutral
The political fight over the space guard has put the U.S. Space Force in a tough spot. After the Space Force was established in December 2019, Congress asked the Department of the Air Force for a recommendation on how to organize its reserve components.
The Department of the Air Force drafted a report in March 2021 that recommended establishing a Space National Guard “with minimal or no new cost” and transferring the units performing space duties under the Air National Guard. That report was never formally submitted to Congress due to OMB’s opposition, according to several congressional sources who spoke with SpaceNews.
Over the past two years, former Chief of Space Operations Gen. John Raymond and Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall argued for alternative approaches, such as consolidating active duty and reserve components and allowing some members to work part-time. But they did not propose establishing a Space National Guard.
The current Chief of Space Operations Gen. B. Chance Saltzman has only spoken in broad terms about this issue, highlighting the importance of the skills that those Guard units possess.
In response to questions about Saltzman’s position, a spokesperson told SpaceNews that the Department of the Air Force is “still evaluating the best future disposition of current Air National Guard space units. General Saltzman always emphasizes that the capabilities that are in the Guard are critical, and we need to find a way to maintain them.”
Guard units in limbo
Col. Michael Bruno, chief of staff for the Colorado National Guard Joint Staff, told SpaceNews that the uncertainty about the future of the Air National Guard’s space units has hurt morale and undermined recruiting.
“This needs to be solved,” he said. “There’s going to be a breaking point coming up sooner or later. Things can’t continue down this path.”
When the Space Force was established, active duty space units were moved out of the Air Force and placed in the Space Force, but no corresponding move was made to create a Space Force National Guard component.
Bruno explained that the roughly 1,000 members of the Air National Guard who perform space operations duties — such as controlling communications and missile warning satellites, and electronic warfare systems — are now “orphans” as they are technically under the Air Force but the Air Force is no longer in charge of space missions.
The Space Force is now building its own culture, it has its own basic training and personnel regulations, Bruno noted. “But our folks are orphaned. They are supporting space missions but they still fall under the Air National Guard.”
If Congress doesn’t establish a Space National Guard, the probable outcome is that the Air Force will stop funding these units because they are not aligned with the air service.
Transferring the Air National Guard’s space professionals to a Space National Guard would correct that misalignment, Bruno said.
He noted that the Air Force recently relocated the Guard’s space unit stationed in Guam to Hawaii, so Guam will not have a unit that would move to the Space National Guard if it’s established.
CBO cost estimate ‘misinformed’
Guard officials have estimated that reassigning the space units from the Air National Guard to the Space National Guard would cost no more than $250,000, said Bruno.
“CBO was at best misinformed,” he said.
The only expenses would be to make name tapes for the uniforms, change signs at bases and make unit patches, said Bruno. “It could literally be done on a drill weekend.”
There is another issue that nobody is talking about, he said, which is the potential cost and time it would take to train new people to carry out the duties performed today by guardsmen if their units are deactivated.
“If we take the missions out of the guard, there is a capability gap,” Bruno said.
The Air National Guard, for example, has 60% of the deployable space electromagnetic warfare units that support U.S. combatant commands around the world, said Bruno. “They are continually deployed.”
“If that goes away, rebuilding that squadron of 80 people to the same skill and knowledge levels would take seven to 10 years,” he said.
It’s important to remember that Guard units have a federal mission but also support their states, he said. If the space units are not moved to the Space National Guard, the Air Force likely will convert those jobs to air-focused positions. And it is doubtful, Bruno added, that many members will give up their status under the Air National Guard to join the Space Force as an active-duty member.
“The great thing about the guard is we are trained, organized and equipped to fight our nation’s war as reserves to our active duty counterparts,” Bruno noted. “But we also work in our communities to respond to crises like natural disasters, search and rescue and health emergencies like the covid pandemic.”
Bruno said the clock is ticking. “The unknown factor is creeping into the morale and psyche of our members.”