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Some states may lose Air National Guard flying units

Jun. 26, 2013 - 06:00AM   |  
F-16 Fighting Falcons from the Colorado Air National Guard arrive at a training base in northern Jordan as part of an exercise June 6. Budget realities may force the Air National Guard to shut down some aircraft squadrons.
F-16 Fighting Falcons from the Colorado Air National Guard arrive at a training base in northern Jordan as part of an exercise June 6. Budget realities may force the Air National Guard to shut down some aircraft squadrons. (Senior Master Sgt. John P. Rohrer/Air National Gua)
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Budget realities could force the Air National Guard below its guiding principle of one flying unit per state, and state leaders could be OK with that.

During last year’s budget deliberations, the Guard and state leaders drew a line on cuts, focusing on its “capstone principle” of one unit capable of flying missions per state, while the Air Force was targeting the component for cuts.

But the realities of sequestration and an uncertain budget future may mean the closure of some aircraft units, although state leaders say they would agree to the cuts as long as there are enough assets available regionally to respond to natural disasters.

“If they don’t have (the assets), they are interested in making sure that at least regionally, they can access it very quickly,” said Heather Hogsett, the director of the homeland security committee at the National Governors Association.

Currently, all states have an aircraft unit, although there has been a push at increasing the number of Air National Guard units with cyber missions such as intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, which could replace flying units.

The idea came up during the third public meeting of the National Commission on the Structure of the Air Force on June 26. The congressionally mandated commission, created in last year’s defense spending bill, is made up of members nominated by the president and Congress. It will produce a report next year on the future force structure needs of the service.

Members of the commission spoke critically of the need for each state to have a flying unit. Les Brownlee, a former acting undersecretary of the Army, asked state leaders directly: “Why does a governor need an F-16?”

Maj. Gen. Tim Orr, the adjutant general of Iowa, said the 132nd Fighter Wing in his state was one of two units that lost their F-16s under last year’s spending bill. He said other parts of the wing — including medical units, maintenance, security forces, other support units — were crucial to his state, along with having pilots and their F-16s able to deploy for the Air Force.

“It’s the other capabilities in the wing that are crucial,” he said. “In (2008) floods, we used all personnel to accomplish the mission on the ground.”

Brownlee responded by saying the state has Army National Guard units that would be more effective on the ground in disasters than fighter pilots.

“We had so much flooding that it took the whole Air National Guard and Army National Guard,” Orr said. “That’s not uncommon.”

He said the need for fighters in the Guard is because “we’re the reserve of the Air Force. We have to have that same capability and capacity.”

State leaders are currently meeting with officials from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to look at the top five possible catastrophes that could occur, and then see what assets would need to be available to respond, Orr said. The report is expected this fall and could help drive debates on the allocation of Air National Guard resources.

Brownlee also highlighted the recent decision to have Air Force Reserve crews work under the Air National Guard in response to homeland disasters and under the direction of a Guard dual status commander. This overlap in abilities begs the question, “Is it time to think of a hybrid of the Reserve and Guard?” he said.

Leaders on Capitol Hill and in the Pentagon should start having that discussion and begin a national debate on if that is possible and the right thing to do, Orr said.

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