Dwindling number of aircraft may seal fate of Air Guard

Under base closing proposal, 23 Air National Guard units would be stripped of their planes.

Of all the agonies of the ongoing base-closure process, none has prompted louder howls than the Air Force's proposal to strip 23 Air National Guard units of their planes.

Three states are filing suit (Illinois, Oregon, and Pennsylvania), and an internal memo by the commission counsel shows that the independent Base Realignment and Closure Commission, which vets the Pentagon's recommendations, has seriously considered rejecting some or all of the Air Guard plan.

So on Sept. 8, when the commission presents its final list, many now-anxious communities could end up breathing a sigh of relief. But they shouldn't kid themselves.

Regardless of what happens in September, some Air National Guard units that fly high today will be gone or grounded in the next 10 years. If BRAC does not pick the victims, someone else will have to later, because the Air Force simply does not have enough airplanes to go around.

For decades, the Air Guard has labored to keep aircraft in as many states as possible, if need be by slicing its units smaller and smaller rather than eliminating one outright. Just this July, Lt. Gen. Steven Blum -- head of the National Guard Bureau, the liaison between the Pentagon and the states -- told the House Armed Services Committee, "I am personally committed to stationing a flying unit in every state and territory, bar none."

But the Guard Bureau itself concedes that maintaining such a presence is getting harder. "It's important to look at trying to have that manned flying unit in [each] state for the next few years, maybe for the next decade," Air National Guard Director Lt. Gen. Daniel James told National Journal. "But there are going to be fewer [planes] in the future; you're going to have to evolve into other missions."

What underlies the controversial closure proposals is an Air Force strategy, called "Future Total Force," to address profound changes that will reshape the service long after today's debate is forgotten.

The problem is that under any plausible budget, the Air Force is going to have fewer and fewer planes. The opportunity is that as information technology changes warfare, people will still be needed -- but at computer consoles, not in cockpits -- to operate unmanned drones, monitor satellites, perform intelligence analysis, and conduct cyberwar. And the solution, under this strategy, is ever-closer cooperation between the active-duty Air Force, the Air Force Reserve, and the Air National Guard. All that's standing in the way of such cooperation is politics, budgets, the law, and the Air Force's own fighter-jock culture.

A piece of the future is already operating at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada, where active-duty, Reserve, and Guard airmen sit literally side by side at the remote-control stations for Predator drones -- which are flying real-world reconnaissance over Afghanistan and Iraq. While a small contingent is on the ground in the war zone to maintain the Predators, the actual missions are flown by operators in the U.S., linked to their machines and to ground troops in theater by a global computer network. Some Predators even carry Hellfire missiles: An operator in Nevada presses a button, and someone in the Middle East dies. Then, at the end of their shifts, the operators commute back home to their families and, for reservists and guards, to their civilian jobs.

The Air Force plans to create at least four new Predator units in the Air National Guard, in Arizona, New York, North Dakota, and Texas. But the service has laid out no clear path into this future for the Air Guard units it proposes to strip of their manned aircraft. Officers argue that it would be premature, even presumptuous, to specify new missions before Congress has approved getting rid of the old ones, although a preliminary matchup of missions to units is under way.

No one seems reassured. "It's backwards," said Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., whose Duluth-based 148th Fighter Wing is slated to lose its planes. "That may all be perfectly logical, but we haven't seen the plan." Kline said that instead of working out the overall strategy not only for what would go away but also for what would replace it, the Air Force bundled the deletions alone, out of context, into BRAC. So, vague ambitions aside, the only future that the BRAC proposal actually specifies for Duluth and Air Guard units like it is "Expeditionary Combat Support." That means that all the subunits that remain at a base when its aircraft are gone -- maintenance, engineering, security, medical, communications -- will be kept on call to set up emergency airfields in crisis zones or to do disaster relief at home.

"That's not really a 'new mission,' " said Maj. Gen. Roger Lempke, the adjutant general (commander) of the Nebraska National Guard and president of the Adjutants General Association of the United States. "You can't shut people out of one mission and expect them to stay around not knowing what the new mission is going to be." And for every pilot who quits in frustration, it can take more than $4 million to train a replacement; by comparison, taking the 15 planes from Duluth would save just $8 million over 20 years.

Until the brave new missions actually materialize, skeptics will wonder whether the talk of a future force is simply putting a brave face on the dwindling of the current force. The Air Force has been shrinking for 60 years: It had more than 63,000 fighters (for example) at the height of World War II, about 14,000 in Korea, and about 9,000 in Vietnam. Today it has about 3,300. That number is slated to fall below 2,000 in the next generation -- if the ongoing Quadrennial Defense Review doesn't cut the numbers further, as rumors suggest. As planes get more advanced, they get more expensive, so the military buys fewer and keeps them longer. The Air Guard today has some of the oldest planes, and they would have to be scrapped sometime, "even if BRAC went away," said Brig. Gen. Allison Hickey, director of Future Total Force planning. "It's just the wear and tear on the airplanes."

With fewer planes to go around, the plan calls for active-duty forces and the Guard to share them. The military has long had more pilots than cockpits; but as modern technology makes possible round-the-clock operations, and reduces the time that planes spend in maintenance between flights, human exhaustion becomes the limiting factor, and multiple crews per aircraft become the solution. By assembling this extra manpower from all of its components, the Air Force aims to blend the best of each: the experience of guards and reservists, who often spend a decade in one unit, with the cutting-edge technology of the active force.

The boldest model of integrating active and Guard is at Robins Air Force Base in Georgia. In 2001 and 2002, the Air Guard wing at Robins was stripped of its airplanes (B-1 bombers) and merged with an active-duty wing flying the E-8C Joint STARS, radar surveillance planes in high demand around the world. The new 116th Air Control Wing has planes constantly deployed, manned in 90-day rotations by "a mixture of Guard and active-duty personnel," said Brig. Gen. George Lynn, the Guard officer who commands the "blended" unit. "Every squadron is both Guard and active duty, every office. It took two years to work through, but now you can't tell the difference. It's seamless."

But seams exist, if not in operations, then in administration. Guard and active-duty personnel live under different systems for benefits, promotion, leave, even military law: An officer from one component cannot institute disciplinary action against a subordinate from the other. The underlying problem is that the president, under Title 10 of the U.S. Code, commands federal forces, but state governors, under Title 32, command their Guard forces until they are mobilized. Until Congress changes the law, the Air Force is leery of creating another hybrid active-Guard unit on the Robins model.

Instead, the current Future Total Force plan calls for more "associate" squadrons, in which two units -- one active, one Guard -- share the same aircraft but retain separate chains of command. The units coordinate where possible and act separately where the law requires. The active Air Force has had associate arrangements with the Air Force Reserve for decades, but both operate under Title 10: Partnering active units with associate squadrons in the Guard creates some, though hardly all, of the Title 32 tangles raised by combining both components in a single unit as at Robins. "We are currently reviewing statutory changes" to propose to Congress, said Lt. Gen. James. "There will have to be some changes in statute to make this easier and smoother."

The most arduous changes, however, will not be legal, but cultural. The Air Force has always been about airplanes, and not just for the pilots: Ground crews, supply staff, even clerks and cooks take pride when their unit's planes roar overhead. But increasingly, units, both active and Guard, will have to share their aircraft or even give them up to sit at computer screens. That challenges the identity that binds the service together -- and the glamour that helps it recruit.

"People go to an Air National Guard base and they expect to see aircraft," said Guard Maj. Gen. Lempke. "But the numbers of aircraft out there in the future are going to be a lot less than they are today. We've got to move into other areas. And I hear all the time from recruiters that young kids today would just as soon be behind a joystick as in an airplane. What we need is a bridge from one to another."