Air Force Staff Sgt. Rhyan Acey performs maintenance on the AN/TSQ-180 Milstar Communications Vehicle on July 30, 2021, for the 233rd Space Group at Greeley Air National Guard Station, Colo. The 233rd Space Group was the first National Guard unit to assume a U.S. Space Command mission.

Air Force Staff Sgt. Rhyan Acey performs maintenance on the AN/TSQ-180 Milstar Communications Vehicle on July 30, 2021, for the 233rd Space Group at Greeley Air National Guard Station, Colo. The 233rd Space Group was the first National Guard unit to assume a U.S. Space Command mission. (Amanda Geiger/Air National Guard)

Air National Guard leaders estimated up to 70% of their space-focused airmen would resist a transfer to Space Force should Congress approve an Air Force proposal to move 14 Guard units into the newest service branch.

“Without these transfers, the Space Force will have a capability and readiness gap that will take seven to 10 years and cost taxpayers approximately $1 billion to fix,” Brig. Gen. Michael Bruno of the Colorado National Guard and director of the state’s Joint Staff said Friday during a call with reporters that included Guard members and leaders from Colorado, Alaska and Hawaii. “As I speak, Air National Guard members from Colorado are currently deployed overseas in harm’s way while providing critical space capabilities in support of combatant commanders. Yet, these space professionals may not have a military job to come back to when they return.”

The proposal would move the units into the Space Force as part of the service’s plan to allow for full-time or part-time service and move more space operations into the new service branch. However, the framework for part-time guardians is years away, according to the Air Force. Troops who serve on active duty have different obligations than the Guard, such as working full time for the military and moving every three years as opposed to working within their state on a part-time or as-needed basis.

Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall wrote Friday in a letter to concerned governors that Guard members will have the opportunity to volunteer for the Space Force or retrain and remain in the Air National Guard. Units will also remain at their current locations.

As of Tuesday, 140 House lawmakers, senators and governors — Republicans and Democrats — have expressed concerns about the proposal.

The two sides do not even agree on the number of affected personnel. The Air Force said it would impact 578 airmen, and National Guard leaders put the estimate at roughly 1,000.

The fears among Guard members include forced moves from the state where they serve now or being forced to resign from full-time civilian employment, according to troops who spoke Friday. A survey of affected troops found 70% would rather retrain or retire than be transferred into the active-duty Space Force, Bruno said.

Capt. Ian Matson of the 213th Space Warning Squadron in the Alaska Air National Guard said he spent nearly 10 years on active duty. During an assignment in Alaska, he jumped on an opportunity to stay in the state through the Air National Guard, and he’s been there for more than three years. To retrain within the Guard would be to lose a job that he enjoys and to go on active duty could pull him from his family.

“Having my family here by my side where I can go home every night to them is what makes me want to stay in the Alaska Air National Guard,” he said.

The states with space units are Alaska, California, Colorado, Florida, Hawaii, New York and Ohio.

The affected Guard units, which now provide 60% of the Space Force’s electromagnetic warfare capability and 33% of U.S. space capabilities, such as deconflicting GPS issues, missile warning, satellite communications and terrestrial weather effects on operations. Guard units have been performing space missions for nearly 30 years, Bruno said.

While these Guard units serve space-focused missions primarily on the federal level, they also provide support to the states, Colorado Gov. Jared Polis said Monday during a call with reporters. The 233rd Space Group, which is part of the Colorado National Guard, has participated in every state-sponsored mission since 2000, he said. That includes response to the coronavirus pandemic in 2020 and providing satellite-based fire operations during wildfire season.

“The importance of space resources to firefighting and natural disasters is essential for states like ours and many others,” said Polis, who has a meeting Wednesday with Kendall to address the issue.

Staff Sgt. Robert Brown, a member of the 233rd group, said he prefers the Guard over active duty because he can continue to live near the orthopedic specialists who provide medical treatment for his young son.

“My wife and I are expecting a daughter in just about a month. That really enforces our need to stay,” he said.

Governors losing control over some Guard troops has led the governors of all 50 states and five U.S. territories to write to Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and President Joe Biden to challenge the move. Fifty-three governors did so in a joint letter to Austin last week through the Council of Governors, an advisory board of state governors for the Defense Department.

The council was not contacted prior to Kendall approving the proposal March 15, the governors said. The proposal is now with Congress as part of this year’s budget discussions and is separate from stalled legislation that would create a Space National Guard.

On Monday, a group of 56 House members and 29 senators sent a letter urging the House and Senate Armed Services committees to reject the proposal.

“There are seven states that have space missions, and 53 governors who are opposed to the proposal. That should tell you everything about how dangerous [and] how much of an existential threat this proposal is to the authority of the governors and to the National Guard,” Bruno said.

In Kendall’s response Friday to the governors’ letter, he wrote the move of the units “would help complete the work of standing up the U.S. Space Force” and is “essential to the unity of command and mission success.”

Utah Gov. Spencer Cox, who was on the call Monday alongside Polis, said Kendall’s response failed to address the root of their concerns.

“He was saying that the proposal would be negligible, and that’s deeply disappointing,” Cox said.

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Rose L. Thayer is based in Austin, Texas, and she has been covering the western region of the continental U.S. for Stars and Stripes since 2018. Before that she was a reporter for Killeen Daily Herald and a freelance journalist for publications including The Alcalde, Texas Highways and the Austin American-Statesman. She is the spouse of an Army veteran and a graduate of the University of Texas at Austin with a degree in journalism. Her awards include a 2021 Society of Professional Journalists Washington Dateline Award and an Honorable Mention from the Military Reporters and Editors Association for her coverage of crime at Fort Hood.

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