Air Force's Controversial Plan to Transfer National Guard Units to Space Force Gets Gutted by House

U.S. Rep. Joe Wilson visits Kadena Air Base, Japan
U.S. Rep. Joe Wilson, center, speaks with U.S. Air Force Master Sgt. Alex Austin, left, and U.S. Air Force Capt. Jarrett Rimel during his visit at Kadena Air Base, Japan, Sept. 8, 2023. (U.S. Air Force photo by Luis E. Rios Calderon)

Governors would retain the right to nix proposed transfers of units from their National Guards to the active-duty Space Force under a measure approved by a House panel that significantly waters down a controversial Air Force plan.

The amendment to the House Armed Services Committee's National Defense Authorization Act, or NDAA, would also make transferring units optional, rather than required, if the legislation becomes law.

The changes, which were proposed by Rep. Joe Wilson, R-S.C., to ensure governors approve of any transfers effectively defang a Department of the Air Force proposal that drew fierce opposition from the National Guard, every governor in the country, and a sizable number of lawmakers in both parties.

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Retired Maj. Gen. Francis McGinn, the president of the National Guard Association of the United States -- the nonprofit organization that has lobbied heavily against the Air Force's plan, praised Wilson's revisions.

"I respect the work of the Armed Services Committee on the issue. We look forward to continuing to work with them and the full Congress on matters pertaining to the Guard, our membership, and the defense and security of our nation," McGinn said in a interview Wednesday. "We do thank Rep. Wilson for taking the lead on the amendment that was passed."

Last month, Air Force officials submitted proposed legislation for consideration in Congress 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. Most concerning for opponents, the proposal called for those units to be transferred by circumventing laws that require approval from governors.

The Air Force plan 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 for which some lawmakers have advocated.

But opponents piled on criticism that the proposed legislation usurps governors' authority over their National Guards and ignores the will of Guardsmen who signed up to serve their states in addition to the country.

Leaders from the National Governors Association, a nonpartisan policy organization representing state authorities, spoke with Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall about their concerns over the proposal earlier this month but did not get assurances it would be pulled.

"Governors from both parties in all 55 states and territories unanimously object to the proposal to transfer certain National Guard units out of states, and the continued failure of the Air Force to meaningfully consider gubernatorial authority is very concerning," the National Governors Association wrote earlier this month. "We appreciated the opportunity to speak directly with Secretary Kendall, and we are disappointed that he did not commit to withdrawing the proposal."

While the fight over the authority of the Air National Guard's space units has brought staunch opposition from the National Guard Association, McGinn said following the amendment there's no bad blood between the Air Force and his organization.

"Disagreeing on a particular issue has not hurt that long-standing relationship with the Air Force," McGinn said. "We have the utmost respect for them as a force, the utmost respect for the secretary and the chief of staff of the Air Force."

As opposition swelled, House Armed Services Committee Chairman Mike Rogers, R-Ala., softened his support for the Air Force plan and included in his first draft of the NDAA a version of the proposal with some changes meant to appease critics.

Among the changes Rogers made was to cap the number of Guardsmen who could be transferred at 580. He has said only 578 Guardsmen from six states are needed to fulfill the Air Force plan.

Rogers' proposal also required the Air Force to find a new position for any Guardsman who doesn't want to transfer to the Space Force, and it prohibited the Air Force from moving units to new states after they're transferred, among other tweaks.

The amendment approved during Wednesday's committee debate on the NDAA further guts the Air Force plan. It strikes the language that allows the units to be transferred without approval from the governors and says that the Air Force "may" transfer units, rather than "shall."

The amendment also requires the Pentagon to submit an annual report to Congress on how the transfers affected the Space Force and Air National Guard's capabilities and any challenges that arose during the transfers.

The amendment was approved by voice vote with no debate as part of a package of a few dozen bipartisan amendments.

Wilson, the amendment's sponsor, was one of 85 lawmakers who signed onto a letter earlier this month imploring the committee to keep the Air Force proposal out of the NDAA. Rep. Jason Crow, D-Colo., one of the lawmakers who organized the letter, praised Wilson's amendment.

"This is an important step to protect our National Guard and safeguard their commitment to serve," Crow said in a statement. "Colorado's Guard members sign up to serve their community and nation, and that service should be respected."

There are still several legislative steps before the NDAA becomes law, including negotiations with the Senate. Senators have not indicated where they will fall on the Air Force proposal when the upper chamber starts work on its version of the NDAA next month.

"We can't speak for what they're going to do," McGinn said. "We'll continue to work with the leadership ... on the issue and provide whatever support we can or information that they need from us."

Related: 'Existential Threat': Air Guardsmen Slam Proposal to Move Their Units to Space Force

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