By Frank Whitman
The U.S. Department of Defense will soon house two Bounty Hunter weapon systems, most likely at Andersen Air Force Base, pending a basing decision by the Secretary of the Air Force. The systems are considered defensive and are to monitor U.S. communications satellites to detect efforts by adversaries to interfere with U.S. military communications.
While the systems belong to the three-year-old U.S. Space Force, the question of who will operate them, and similar units, is an ongoing point of disagreement over proposals to create a Space Force National Guard or a “Space Component” that would include a mix of full-time and part-time personnel.
“The way it is now, we’re in the Air National Guard, and the Space Force is a different service, so we’re sort of orphaned,” said Lt. Col. Jeremiah Hitchner of the Guam Air National Guard. He was assigned by the National Guard Bureau to establish the unit that will operate the system of which he will likely be commander.
While active-duty Air Force space unit members have become Space Force guardians and continue to carry out their space mission, the 14 Air National Guard space units – comprising 1,008 personnel in seven states and Guam - remain under the Air Force because a Space National Guard was never established. About 60 percent of the personnel providing U.S. electronic warfare capability are Air National Guardsmen, according to Hitchner.
Those favoring the creation of a Space Guard say it would be more efficient, significantly less expensive and provide unity of command and culture if the entire operation were under the Space Force.
While Hitchner and others, including former National Guard Bureau heads and members of Congress, support the creation of a Space Force National Guard, the White House has continued to oppose the initiative, most recently in an Oct. 18 Statement of Administration Policy from the Office of Management and Budget.
Initially, White House opposition was based on what is considered an inaccurate estimate by the Congressional Budget Office of the cost of a Space Guard as $100 million to $490 million. The estimate was based on the establishment of Space Guard units in all 54 states and territories, which is not being proposed.
More recently, the OMB pointed out that DOD space missions are solely federal. It contends that states have no need for military satellites and refers to “the additional overhead of a separate component.”
Sens. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and Marco Rubio, R-Fla., support the creation of the Space National Guard and introduced the bipartisan Space National Guard Establishment Act. The House of Representatives has already passed such legislation.
“Our space units should operate as a seamless team, but they can’t do that while divided between two services,” wrote Feinstein and Rubio in a joint letter published in Defense News and posted on their respective websites. “Instead, they’re dependent on added bureaucracy to conduct basic functions – training troops, acquiring resources, setting standards, inspecting units, and mobilizing personnel.”
The Guard is proposing that only the 14 existing Air Force Guard space units in seven states and Guam would become Space Guard units, the cost for which would be negligible “because all of the units have been funded over a five-year projection,” Hitchner said.
Similarly, the National Guard Association of the U.S. reported in its “Fiscal Year 2023 Fact Sheet” that Gen. Daniel Hokanson, chief of the National Guard Bureau, testified in May 2021, “The actual cost is about $200,000 and that’s just to change the name tapes on their uniforms, the sign outside their buildings and the flags of the units. The units already exist, they’re already performing the mission today.”
Creating new Space Force units, as opposed to having Air Guard space unit members continue their mission as Space Force members, would cost more than $600 million for buildings and would require five to seven years to build back the expertise of current Air Guard space members, Hitchner said.
No one seems to have a clear idea of how the hybrid “full-time/part-time” Space Component would function, Hitchner said.
Although the location of the Bounty Hunter has yet to be finalized, Hitchner said he believes all indications are that Guam will be selected. Among those indicators is the fact that he was sent to Guam to stand up the unit that will support the systems.
As of late October, he has recruited 48 members, all locally, of what will be a 62-member squadron. “I did not have a hard time recruiting in Guam for space, because it’s space,” Hitchner said. “It’s the cutting edge; it’s cool, I guess.”
Some are “brand new recruits” who are getting clearances and going to school. Some personnel were from the Air National Guard and wanted to try something different, he said.
“Some are from the 254th (RED HORSE squadron.) I got some sergeants and master sergeants from that side, and some chiefs that I brought over. And we have a mix of some reservists that I was able to get from the Aerial Port Squadron that are on island too,” Hitchner said. “All my slots are really filled; I’m just waiting for people to fill out paperwork.”
The fiscal 2020 National Defense Authorization Act included $27 million for a space control squadron facility on Andersen Air Force Base. A request for proposals is to be issued following the basing decision, which could be as soon as December or January, he said.
“We have done the environmental analysis; all findings are favorable,” he said. “We’re ahead of the game with what we’ve done here.”
The Space Force was established in December 2019 to assume the space missions that had been the purview of the U.S. Air Force Space Command. It is to focus on the increasingly critical space/electronic warfare missions, while the Air Force focuses on its aircraft and similar warfighting technology.