Air National Guardsmen set up a 2.4-meter satellite communications antenna at Camp Clark, Missouri, on April 23, 2024.

Air National Guardsmen set up a 2.4-meter satellite communications antenna at Camp Clark, Missouri, on April 23, 2024. U.S. Air National Guard / Senior Airman Phoenix Leitch

Kill the zombie Space National Guard idea

Guardsmen in space-related jobs belong in the Space Force.

Zombies may be fiction in movies and books, but in politics they are real. Bad ideas in Washington don’t always stay dead—you often have to keep killing them. The latest zombie to roam the halls of Congress is a proposal to create a Space National Guard. The idea was considered last year and ultimately killed in the final version of the National Defense Authorization Act, or NDAA. But apparently, this zombie idea wasn’t dead enough because the National Guard Bureau, governors, and a collection of special-interest groups brought the issue back to the forefront in this year’s NDAA.

At stake in this debate is the fate of 578 Air National Guard members in space-related positions across six states. Hawaii has the most with 35 full-time and 95 part-time airmen affected, followed by California (43 full-time, 83 part-time), and Colorado (50 full-time, 69 part-time). In total, the affected personnel amount to just half of one percent of the 107,700 airmen currently in the Air National Guard.

The special-interest groups advocating for this proposal want to create a whole new branch of the National Guard just for these service members. Creating a new branch would of course create more bureaucracy, and it would put these personnel in a separate status under a different chain of command than their Space Force colleagues. It would limit their career progression and make it more difficult for them to shift between full-time and part-time status if they wanted to do that in the future. As guard members, they could be called up by their governors—but to do what? No one knows.

The Space Force has a much more reasonable plan. It is asking Congress for the authority to “rebadge” these personnel to be fully fledged guardians in the Space Force. They wouldn’t change status—full-time personnel would stay full time, and part-timers would stay part time. They would be doing the same jobs at the same locations as they are now. They would just be doing it in a different uniform than they wear today.

The reticence these airmen may have about donning the new Space Force uniform is understandable—they are a bit much. It could also be disruptive to daily operations as they learn to call each other guardians instead of airmen. And honestly, these things are the biggest downside to the Space Force’s proposal for the individuals involved. But there is plenty of upside—like creating a real continuum of service, better opportunities for promotion and career progression, and less time wasted on bureaucratic nonsense.

The governors make a fair point that this plan was not handled well by the Air Force. The Air Force should have consulted the states earlier in the process, and the Air Force should have been more transparent all along in the analysis it conducted that led to this plan. It is clear in hindsight that the coordination of this proposal did not get the attention it needed from senior civilian leadership. That may be because it involved so few personnel, or it may be because there is no senior civilian leader for space within the Department of the Air Force. That’s a problem Congress can and should fix in this year’s NDAA by creating an Undersecretary of the Air Force for Space—a position that was included in the original proposal to create the Space Force and is desperately needed for reasons like this.

But poor coordination and questionable uniforms aside, something important is at stake in this debate. Space is an enormous source of economic and military advantage for the United States—one that China is working hard to copy and counter. The Space Force was created to ensure the U.S. military maintains and extends its lead in space. While it is the smallest military service by far, it packs the biggest punch because it is the key enabler for all the other military services and for our economy. With threats growing, China working hard to catch up, and budgets constrained by last year’s budget deal, we cannot afford to waste time and money on petty parochial politics like this.

Creating a Space National Guard would effectively tie the service’s hands in managing its personnel and create wasteful overhead and duplication that drain funding and leadership attention away from higher priorities. Congress should keep the Space Force lean and agile and give it the authority it is requesting to manage its personnel as one unified component.

Todd Harrison is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), where he focuses on defense strategy and budgeting, the defense industrial base, and space policy and security.