The Pentagon is also not eager to create a new organization. Some active-duty leaders are reluctant to have to contend with another powerful lobby in Washington pushing parochial interests and projects, according to current and former military officials and experts.
The new Space Guard would likely draw from the roughly 2,000 troops that now carry out space missions in the Army and Air National Guard in eight states.
“The Space Guard issue is being forced by governors and elected officials,” said Mir Sadat, who oversaw space policy on the National Security Council during the Trump administration and is now a researcher at the Atlantic Council. He called the debate “highly politicized.”
The Space Guard proposal is being spearheaded by Democrat Jason Crow and Republican Doug Lamborn of Colorado, who maintain that for the Space Force to carry out its mission it needs a dedicated cadre like other branches to support it in wartime, including troops with high-tech skills from their private-sector jobs.
The pair, who both sit on the House Armed Services Committee, won adoption of the proposal as an amendment to annual defense policy legislation last month.
The Space Force needs a dedicated Guard component to be “a full-blown equal branch of the military,” Lamborn argued in an interview.
“It’s important for the Space Force to have parity with the other military branches and essential in remaining competitive with China’s space advances,” Rep. Michael Waltz (R-Fla.), who co-sponsored the House provision, said in a statement.
Guard leaders at the state and national level have also been vocal proponents.
The chief of the National Guard Bureau, Gen. Daniel Hokanson, told lawmakers this spring that establishing a standalone Space National Guard is “among my most pressing concerns.”
Others have said leaving space troops in the Army and Air National Guard risks separating them from the service they are supposed to support.
“The delay in creating a National Guard Space Force could have disastrous impacts — potentially orphaning our existing space units from their logical parent service and negatively impacting readiness, retention and morale,” Maj. Gen. James Eifert, Florida’s adjutant general, wrote last summer.
A Space National Guard, advocates also say, will also bring in citizen guardians with private-sector experience.
“We do have people that are doing space work that are perfect fits to be in the National Guard and doing it on that kind of basis as well as balancing their other job,” Lamborn said.
Sadat referred to it as “having guardians converge their civilian and reserve military careers at about the same time and rise through the ranks of both institutions.”
“In this line of thinking, the Space Force needs a National Guard component to be the equal of the Army and Air Force and to ensure the militia’s modern relevance,” explained Brent Ziarnick, associate professor of spacepower at the Air Force’s Air Command and Staff College.
‘Humoring the notion’
But opposition has been building, particularly from the White House, which calls the proposal a waste of money.
In a message to Congress last month, the Biden administration stressed that when the Space Force was created, Congress “emphasized the need to minimize administrative expenses and prioritize the development of space capabilities.”
“This Administration remains committed to that approach,” it added.
The White House cited an estimate from the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office last year that it would cost upwards of $500 million per year if the Space National Guard was about one-third the size of the Space Force, or on par with the other branches’ Guard forces.
The CBO said a smaller version, more in line with a plan that the Air Force put together in 2020 for 1,500 personnel drawn from existing National Guard units, would cost an extra $100 million per year, along with a one-time cost of about $20 million to build new facilities.
But the administration wants to keep part-time space personnel in the Air National Guard and the Air Force Reserve, asserting they “have effectively performed their roles with no adverse effect on DOD’s space mission since the establishment of the Space Force.”
The Senate Armed Services Committee, meanwhile, is backing a more limited plan in its version of the defense bill, which would simply rename the Air National Guard the Air and Space National Guard. It requires the Pentagon to report back to Congress with a plan for carrying out any necessary organizational changes.
The panel described the move as “the most efficient use of scarce funding based on the number of personnel performing space missions in the existing Air National Guard and the size of the Space Force.”
The Space Force maintains that the current structure is sufficient. Space personnel in the Army and Air National Guard and separate reservists “are aligned to support the Space Force and remain critical to the space mission performed by the U.S. military,” said Air Force Col. Catie Hague, chief spokesperson for the Space Force.
“The Department of the Air Force continues to work with partners across the Department of Defense, Office of Management and Budget, Air Force Reserve, National Guard Bureau and Congress to define the way ahead, which will be outlined in a report to Congress,” she added.
The Space Force falls under the Department of the Air Force.
Retired Lt. Col. Peter Garretson, a former Air Force space strategist, sees deep resistance among the Air Force and Pentagon leadership, which wants to retain more control of the part-time National Guard, which exerts enormous influence over Congress.
The state militias’ “strong representation in D.C. has checked [DoD’s] hand on what kind of equipment they buy and where they put it,” said Garretson, who is a senior fellow in defense studies at the American Foreign Policy Council. “They may want to be in a position where they can take their time and maximize their choices.”
Ziarnick, a member of the Air Force Reserve, similarly suspects the Space Force also doesn’t really want a dedicated Space National Guard.
“They are bowing to the pressure the National Guard Bureau and the states have brought to bear to build a Guard by humoring the notion of a Space National Guard,” he said.
‘A little premature’?
Even among backers of a separate Guard, there isn’t agreement whether the time is right to force the issue.
The top Republican on the House Armed Services Committee, Rep. Mike Rogers of Alabama, predicted Congress may wait a year to formally set up a Guard component, citing his conversations with Chief of Space Operations Gen. Jay Raymond. Rogers added he would have “made sure” the provision was included in the original defense bill — rather than added by an amendment — if the Space Force chief wanted it immediately.
“My guess is it’s probably going to be next year. … The Senate’s not there yet,” Rogers said in an interview. “Gen. Raymond wanted to wait until next year anyway, so I think that’s probably what’s going to end up being the case.”
Sadat also pointed out that one major issue that remains unresolved before setting up a Space National Guard is what to do about the additional 1,600 space troops in the Air Force Reserve.
“Unless there is a plan to stand up a competitive reserve component within the Space Force, these space reservists will have to convert to other Air Force career fields” in order to join the Guard, he said. “If this matter is not resolved before its creation, then we will have a Space Force reserve system that is inferior in every way to their active duty counterparts and also their reserve peers in the other services.”
What seems clear is that the debate will not be settled in the short term.
House Armed Service Chair Adam Smith (D-Wash.) said he believes establishing a separate Space Guard is “a little premature right now.”
“Does it have to be a separate Guard?” he asked. “No. So, I think we can negotiate, talk about it and get to a place that does it in the most cost-effective and intelligent manner.”