With Mounting Opposition, Proposal to Move Guard Units to Space Force Appears Doomed in Congress

Airman wearing a United States Space Command patch
United States Space Command patch of an airman during Space Development Training between New York Air National Guardsmen and representatives of the Brazilian Navy and Air Force, Niagara Falls, N.Y., Dec 6, 2023. (U.S. Air Force photo by 1st Lt. Jason Carr)

A controversial proposal from the Air Force to move space units out of the National Guard and into the Space Force appears doomed in Congress as its key congressional backer softens his support amid mounting opposition.

House Armed Services Committee Chairman Mike Rogers, R-Ala., who previously offered a strong endorsement of the Air Force proposal, told Military.com on Tuesday that, while he still supports the idea, it's the Air Force's job to sway the naysayers.

"It's not my idea. I'm not campaigning for it. It's their job to sell it. If they can't sell it, that's their problem," Rogers said.

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Pressed on whether he envisions the proposal moving forward in this year's must-pass defense policy bill that his committee will debate later this month, Rogers told Military.com that he has "no idea," though he reportedly told Politico he plans to include it in his initial draft of the bill but won't fight if another lawmaker moves to take it out.

Rogers' comments come after every governor in the country and 85 House and Senate members came out in opposition to the proposal.

At issue is proposed legislation that Air Force officials submitted for consideration in Congress that would bypass governors to transfer space-focused, state-controlled units out of the Air National Guard to the Space Force, where they would become part of the active-duty military.

The idea is meant to build up the part-time active-duty service model that Congress approved for the Space Force last year in lieu of a new Space National Guard that some lawmakers have advocated for.

Backlash to the Air Force proposal was swift and has only grown in recent weeks.

Governors of 48 states and five U.S. territories sent a letter to the Pentagon last month arguing the proposal would usurp their authority over their National Guards. The only two governors who didn't sign that letter, Republicans Ron DeSantis of Florida and Greg Abbott of Texas, have since sent their own letters opposing the plan.

Asked about the governors' opposition at a Senate hearing Wednesday, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said the Air Force is working to explain the rationale behind the proposal to them.

"This measure will affect, I believe, a small number of people, but certainly I understand the governors' concerns, and we owe it to the governors to engage them on it, and that's why [the] secretary of the Air Force has recently engaged them personally on this issue," Austin said.

Rogers, for his part, said his support hasn't changed in light of Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey, a Republican, signing the letter.

The National Guard Association of the United States "has whipped up a lot of political opposition," Rogers said. "There's only six states that have these things in them. Alabama is not one of them. They got the [National] Governors Association to get a letter to get all the governors to sign it. My governor doesn't know or care much about this. She's wonderful. I love her. Trust me, she doesn't care. She just signed a letter the association asked her to."

Air National Guard leaders and enlisted Guardsmen also held a press call last week in which they called the proposal an "existential threat" to U.S. national security, pointing to an internal survey that found most of the affected personnel would rather retire or retrain than move into the Space Force.

And on Tuesday morning, 56 representatives and 29 senators from both parties sent a letter to Rogers and other leaders on the House and Senate armed services committees urging them to keep the "deeply flawed" proposal out of the defense bill.

"To be clear: When individuals sign up for the National Guard, they are serving their country and their community," the lawmakers wrote in the letter, underlining the last three words. "Congress shouldn't abandon this model."

The signatories included 14 members of the House committee and five members of the Senate panel.

The leaders of the House Appropriations Committee's defense subpanel also separately voiced skepticism about the proposal at a hearing last month with National Guard Bureau chief Gen. Daniel Hokanson, who himself noted the "big concern" among the states.

While Rogers said Tuesday he continues to believe the Air Force proposal is "wise," he also thinks the Space Force will be fine if it doesn't go through. Rogers was one of the first members of Congress to propose creating a military branch for space.

"It doesn't matter to me because the Space Force can stand this up organically," he said. "And that's probably what they'll do. And then the Air Force Guard units that have that mission won't have anything to do."

-- Thomas Novelly contributed to this story.

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