The Battle Between the Air Force and the Air National Guard
Faced with the need to reduce spending by $4.8 billion under this year’s budget, Air Force leaders wanted most of the cuts to come from the Air National Guard. Congress disagreed and the fight over where to cut in the future continues.
The Air Force submitted an FY13 budget under which the active duty force absorbed only 17 percent of the unit cuts, even though 67 percent of Air Force personnel are on active duty. Congress reacted furiously, forced a compromise, and created a National Commission on the Structure of the Air Force to report back before any further decisions are made.
This fight illustrates that U.S. defense choices are rarely based on any external objective standard, no matter how many spreadsheets or PowerPoint presentations are waved around. Instead, choices are often based on who can muster the strongest political argument.
In this case, Congress’s argument for the Guard has been rock hard for more than a century and the Air Force has been getting smaller for decades. This undermines the Air Force argument that making the active force smaller is just too hard to do.
Congress’s role in maintaining the militia (the predecessor of the National Guard) is one of its enumerated powers in the Constitution. But in the late 19th century state militias did not perform as well as desired, leading to calls for reform. The regular forces’ preference was to abolish the militias. Instead, Congress organized the militias as the National Guard, overseen federally, before World War I. This made the militias an independent military force owing allegiance as much to Congress as the president or the states.
More than 100 years later, Congress remains committed to maintaining that allegiance of the Guard because it is good politics.
Although the active Air Force is more than three times larger than the Air National Guard, the active force is geographically consolidated, with 40 percent stationed in just six states. In contrast, all senators and most House members have Guard members as constituents, with no state having more than 5.3 percent of Guard personnel. Each Guard unit represents a cohesive network that reaches out into family and friends, creating an important voting bloc.
This dispersion also makes the Guard an important local validator. Most members of Congress make sure they show up at Memorial Day and Fourth of July events, and like standing next to uniformed members of the military. For the few communities hosting an active base, the uniformed military member is probably the base commander. But at most events the military member will be a local Guardsman, provided the local member of Congress has not become anathema to the local Guard.
Congress likes the Guard for the very reason the active force does not: most of the time, the Guard reports to a different boss. As former Secretary of the Navy John Lehman once wrote: “Without Congress, the executive would almost certainly have reduced the reserve components of the services to nearly zero.”
In contrast, shrinking the active Air Force is not that hard. The Air Force’s inventory of fighter and attack aircraft has shrunk for 23 of the last 26 years. Today’s aircraft inventory is 45 percent of the last peak in the mid-1980s, which was 48 percent of the peak of the mid-1950s. Given the acquisition decisions already made, reductions are almost certainly going to continue.
The Air Force consciously accepted getting smaller even before today’s budget pressures, in order to preserve its high-end capabilities. In 2006, an official Air Force publication stated: “We value quality over quantity – even as we grow smaller, we grow more capable.”
While it is growing smaller, the Air Force is hardly starved for funding. Although only 187 F-22 fighter aircraft have been purchased by the Air Force since 2000, the F-22 received more procurement funding than any other program in the Department of Defense during this period. The Air Force’s C-17 military transport received the second-most.
In 2003, active fighter jets made up 64 percent of the Air Force’s total force fighter inventory. The Air Force has since retired 500 fighters, yet today active fighters still make up 64 percent of the total force. In 2003 active lift aircraft were 46 percent of the total force. Now they make up 51 percent.
The story is similar for units. More than 20 active fighter squadrons were cut in the last 10 years – a reduction of 32 percent. But in that same period more than 10 Guard squadrons were cut – a reduction of 24 percent. Such figures are hardly a record of disproportionate cuts.
While the active Air Force has steadily been getting smaller, it is still quite capable of advancing U.S. interests. In Kosovo and the opening stage of Operation Iraqi Freedom only about 300 Air Force fighters flew, yet both operations were great airpower successes. In Libya, it was less than 100 hundred fighters. When the Air Force has been called on, it has needed only a sixth of its fighter force to respond.
The Air Force must stop pretending that it has no choice but to cut the Guard, and instead figure out ways to keep capability without being crushed by Congress.
For instance, the Air Force could embrace a true Total Force, where any operation of much duration would require using Guard units. The active force would have the best of the best but get dramatically smaller, with the bulk of fighters and lift aircraft transferred to the Guard.
Alternatively, the Air Force could specialize. Active components could fulfill certain roles and the Guard could fulfill others, much as the Guard already does in its air sovereignty mission over the continental United States. But in such a division of labor, the Guard could not be given the ‘lesser’ missions while the active force kept all the most exciting (as in flying) missions.
Maybe most intriguingly, the Air Force could further embrace associated units, which are composed of both active and Guard subordinate units. This model could not have all Guard units subordinate to active units, but must accept some active units serving under the command of Guardsmen.
In the end, Congress is interested in not just the best means to project airpower, but also in how to ensure a viable and independent Guard. These two interests do not have to conflict, but they likely will require the active force to give up some independence and get smaller. To start exploring these possibilities, the active force has to concede that a smaller active Air Force is not actually all that bad.
Russell Rumbaugh is a senior associate and director of the Budgeting for Foreign Affairs and Defense program at the Stimson Center, a nonpartisan and nonprofit international security think tank. He recently testified before the National Commission on the Structure of the Air Force.