If the House version of the National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal 2023 prevails, Space Force will get its own National Guard, despite heated objections from the White House. Influential former Air Force generals and think-tank scholars have argued passionately that Space Force needs a Guard component, but detractors say it’s impractical and will merely create more bureaucracy and expense.
A Space Guard proposal was batted down in last year’s defense budget bill, and it’s been the subject of heated Capitol Hill debate since. So why is the proposal so fraught? Here’s what you need to know.
The Guard and Reserve were left out of the original Space Force design
Getting the Space Force established as its own service was a tough task in its own right. The Pentagon wasn’t thrilled with the idea, as former Air Force Secretary Deborah James revealed in 2018. Inside the Air Force, leaders worried that a space force would create more bureaucratic headaches and strain the service’s oversight capacity while not adding meaningful value. After all, the Air Force already had space-focused squadrons and specialties, and other services also contributed to the mission of satellite tracking, geospatial intelligence, and more.
Space Force was also polarizing because it got a heavy boost from then-President Donald Trump, who sidestepped the debate and fast-tracked the service into existence. When Space Force was stood up on December 20, 2019, its profile was incredibly modest: just 15,000 servicemembers and a budget of $2 billion over five years, with infrastructure and bases transferred from the Air Force.
One of Space Force’s most powerful proponents, Rep. Mike Rogers (R-AL), held back on calling for a Space Guard immediately, choosing instead to follow the lead of the Chief of Staff of the Space Force Gen. John “Jay” Raymond.
“My guess is it’s probably going to be next year. … The Senate’s not there yet,” Rogers told Politico in 2021. “Gen. Raymond wanted to wait until next year anyway, so I think that’s probably what’s going to end up being the case.”
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The fight to create a Space Guard has been on ever since
The National Guard Association of the United States (NGAUS) has been the most vocal proponent of a Space Guard, saying that 1,000 members of the Guard across 16 units are conducting space-focused missions, and suffer from the lack of a single command structure and service.
Failure to create a Guard component right away “orphaned space professionals and operational missions that exist in the Air National Guard, disconnecting them from their parent service, the USSF, making their future unclear and undefined,” NGAUS said in a fact sheet describing the issue as one of its top legislative priorities.
A number of Guard adjutants general also went on the record in 2020 to support a Space Guard, saying it was a crucial component of the service and that the Pentagon should embrace a “proven model” to develop a robust and cohesive force.
But the Department of the Air Force, and Space Force itself, have been cool to the idea. Earlier this year, the Air Force sent a proposal to Congress calling for a single-component Space Force that offered part-time and full-time service options to Guardians, apparently in lieu of a Space Guard and Reserve. Raymond told Congress this approach was part of an overhauled approach the service had taken to managing personnel.
“Resilient space power isn’t just about satellites. It’s also about Guardians,” he said, as reported by Breaking Defense. “This is one of the reasons why we are seeking the integration of active-duty and Reserve forces into a single hybrid component structure.”
It comes down to dollars
In 2021, the White House’s office of Management and Budget announced that it “strongly opposes the creation of a Space National Guard,” saying in a six-page memo that it would create more bureaucracy without delivering new capabilities – and cost up to half a billion dollars per year to boot.
“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 since the establishment of the Space Force,” OMB, which speaks for the Biden administration, wrote. “The Administration looks forward to working with the Congress on alternative Space Force concepts that are efficient, effective, and appropriate for space missions.”
NGAUS has asked the administration to reconsider its opposition to the move, saying the creation of a Space National Guard would cost just $250,000, not $500 million: “the price to change signs and uniform tapes” for the few thousand troops who would be realigning under the new structure.
That figure seems wildly optimistic, and clashes with the Congressional Budget Office’s own cost assessment for the move. In 2020, CBO estimated it would cost about $100 million per year to create a small 1,500-member Space Guard contingent, and up to $490 million annually, with up to $900 million in one-time costs, to build out a larger and more robust Guard similar to those of the other services.
All the dollar figures flying around ultimately kept Congress from moving forward with any kind of Space Guard in last year’s budget bill.
“Simply put, we don’t know enough about the total cost and bureaucratic requirements of this expansion,” Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., told Air Force Times last year.
Related: The Space Force finally has its own rank insignia
But the call to create a Space Guard is growing
This year, the Space National Guard has gained some powerful public advocates. David Deptula, a retired Air Force three-star and the dean of the Air Force Association’s Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies, wrote in Forbes that a Guard component was a requirement for Space Force, and no single-component solution was going to fix the problem.
“Unity of command is a key tenet of American military power,” he wrote. “Personnel conducting space missions that fall under the authority of the Space Force, are currently assigned to the Air National Guard. This creates the unwieldy situation where they serve two masters and as a result have blurred lines of both administrative and operational control.”
Peter Garretson, a senior fellow in defense studies at the American Foreign Policy Council, echoed the call in a piece for The Hill in June, calling the CBO cost estimate “uninformed.” The existing space-focused Guard members at their various commands would carry their existing $79 million budget over to Space Force, he said – making a Space National Guard a bargain for the service. Like the Army National Guard, for example, which conducts domestic crisis response missions and interfaces with civilians in a way the active military branches don’t, Garretson said a Space Guard could provide valuable opportunities in the rapidly commercializing realm of space.
“Both on Earth and in space, the guard has special authorities to “play sheriff” not otherwise available to the Space Force — authorities that could be expanded to enable a space economy,” he said.
The fight’s still on
Despite 12 senators introducing a bill in May that would create a Space National Guard, the Senate markup of the NDAA left out the measure. Just days ago, though, the House completed its own markup of the bill, complete with a Space Guard amendment introduced by longtime advocate Rep. Jason Crow, D-Colo.
In the friendly brawl that is the upcoming NDAA conference session, the House and Senate will need to determine whether they’re going to order the creation of a Space National Guard outright, against the wishes of the White House and in light of a lukewarm Pentagon, or if they’re going to call for more studies to determine what they’re really in for.
Citizen soldiers for space have their best chance yet of becoming a reality this year. Like Space Force itself, if the Space National Guard is created, it will be born in controversy and have to prove itself to skeptics as it takes shape. Does the proposal have what it takes? We’ll have to wait and see.
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