Twelve senators have backed legislation that would create a Space National Guard, reigniting a debate over how the Space Force will organize its part-time components.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) introduced the Space National Guard Establishment Act on May 10, with four Democrats and six Republicans joining them in co-sponsoring the legislation.
“Without a National Guard component for Space Force, we risk losing many talented individuals who want to keep serving their country and their states after they leave active duty, and that is simply unacceptable,” Feinstein said in a statement. “Creating a Space Force National Guard would also save money and ensure a smoother process in the event we need to activate personnel. Not establishing a Space National Guard was a mistake when Space Force was created, and this bill will remedy that.”
The bill has been referred to the Senate Armed Services Committee, where it will face an uncertain future. As part of its 2022 National Defense Authorization Act markup last summer, the committee proposed simply changing the name of the Air National Guard to the Air and Space National Guard, instead of establishing a separate entity.
That approach left advocates for a Space National Guard unsatisfied—they argue that a new entity is needed because members of those Air National Guard units don’t have a direct connection with the Space Force and have essentially been “orphaned” by the Air Force with no corresponding Active-duty units left in the service.
The SASC proposal was “a new idea,” Brig. Gen. Steven J. Butow, commander of the California Air National Guard, said during a recent virtual Schriever Spacepower Forum event hosted by AFA’s Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies. “But what it does is it fails to recognize the way that we operate. We are creatures of doctrine. And doctrine comes from lessons learned in the battlespace. … Unity of command, unity of effort—these are very important concepts. … If you don’t own it, you don’t control it. How can you rely on it? And somebody else is going to have a higher priority for that capability. It is unfair to create the Space Force and then tie the arm behind the Chief of Space Operations’ back because you gave him a less than full complement of capability.”
However, the White House’s Office of Management and Budget also came out against a separate Space Guard, releasing a statement of administration policy saying it “strongly opposes” such a move as it would create unnecessary bureaucracy and increase costs by up to $500 million annually.
Brig. Gen. Michael A. Valle, commander of the Florida Air National Guard, argued that such cost estimates are based off flawed assumptions, such as the need for new infrastructure and the establishment of space units in every state and territory. In actuality, he said during the Mitchell Institute event, the costs would be limited to cosmetic changes such as name tape, unit flags, and signs.
The House Armed Services Committee backed a Space Guard as part of its NDAA markup. But when it came time for the two committees to draft a compromise bill, they pushed the decision off, instead requiring a study and a report on how the Space Force should structure its reserve components, including a look at how much a Space National Guard would cost.
Vice Chief of Space Operations Gen. David D. Thompson told a Senate Armed Services subcommittee May 11 that the service hoped to complete that study in time for the 2024 budgeting cycle, starting next year.
At the same time, the Space Force itself has proposed combining its Active-duty and reserve forces into one combined “Space Component.” In an April hearing before the HASC, Chief of Space Operations Gen. John W. “Jay” Raymond listed three options for Air National Guard units with space missions—leave them as is, create a separate Space Guard, or fold them into the Space Component.
Feinstein and Rubio’s bill would keep those units separate from the Space Component and establish them as the reserves for the Space Force.
Sen. Mark Kelly (D-Ariz.) isn’t one of the cosponsors of the bill. But in questioning Thompson during the May 11 hearing, he laid out several arguments for why a Space Guard might be preferable to a single component.
“Many folks who joined the Air National Guard, they did so because of geographic stability that it offers the members of their families, as well as the opportunity sometimes to serve their state,” Kelly said, pointing out that Air National Guard members might choose not to transfer over to the Space Component if that structure is put in place.
Valle, speaking during the Mitchell Institute event, echoed that line of thinking, saying surveys had shown that up to 90 percent of Air National Guard members in space units said they wouldn’t want to transfer over.
“While supporting the federal mission of homeland defense on full-time status, on different occasions I’ve had the opportunity throughout those years to also support my state through multiple disasters—hurricanes, wildfires, pandemic response, and also travel to other states to support,” said Valle. “That … is what space professionals in the Air National Guard do today and can continue to do so if we establish a Space National Guard: We can conduct and do the mission while being available to support our state and our country.”
Thompson, for his part, noted that while estimates vary on how many ANG service members will transfer, the Space Force’s study on the issue is not making any assumptions that “a large number of Guard members would transition.”
Instead, the study is looking at “determining what would be required to replace those members by Space Force members, the numbers it would take, the training time it would take, the training resources that would take, and the corresponding degradation in mission as we bring those units back up to full status.”
Given the pressing threats posed by China and Russia and the increasingly contested nature of space, Valle and Butow said, the Space Force can’t afford any delay caused by the need to train new Guardians. At the same time, they pointed out that adding Guard members to the Space Component could present manning challenges, as the Space Force’s end strength is supposed to stay low, at 8,600 in 2023.
Currently more than 1,000 members of the Air National Guard are involved in space missions, spread across seven states and one territory—Alaska, California, Colorado, Florida, Hawaii, New York, Ohio, and Guam. Senators from Alaska, California, Colorado, Florida, and Ohio are all cosponsors of Feinstein and Rubio’s bill.