Upgrading the Air National Guard's fleet of C-130H Hercules cargo transports, seen here dropping heavy equipment payloads during a training exercise in April, is a priority for the head of the Guard. (Capt. Raymond Geoffroy / US Air Force)
WASHINGTON — The US Air National Guard has always been defined by its ability to fulfill both military and civil missions. But with budget draw downs, the service faces increasingly tough choices about how to spend what remains of its modernization budget while serving two masters.
A March report by the Pentagon warned that “many support equipment items critical to daily operations are rapidly nearing the end of their expected lives and are becoming increasingly difficult to sustain economically.” Air Guard assets are an average of 25 years old.
The tough choice between modernizing its equipment and sustaining capability is one the active is struggling with as well. Top generals, such as Air Combat Command head Gen. Mike Hostage, have identified that as incredibly difficult in the current budget environment.
But unlike the active, the Guard has an additional challenge: balancing its twin civil-overseas missions.
That means the limited pot of money the Guard has for its equipment — generally $350 to $450 million annually in National Guard and Reserve Equipment Account funds — has to be divided between what is needed for military missions, and what is needed to support the governors.
“The need to balance the equipment requirements that support the federal mission with the equipment requirements that support the state mission is critical,” one source with knowledge of the Guard said. “Allocate too much in one mission area and the other mission might suffer.”
“With the need to fully fund ongoing operations and continued pressure on defense budgets, obtaining adequate funding for both procuring new equipment and modernizing existing equipment continues to be a challenge,” the 2014 Pentagon report reads. “Additionally, the [Guard] is concerned with its ability to satisfy requests to support civil authorities with its dual-use equipment.”
At the same time, the Guard is expected to take on a greater role as the service looks to move force out of the active component.
Speaking July 30, Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James predicted that the results of a large-scale service review will conclude that the Guard and Reserve will take on more responsibility.
“I would expect that out of that, we will come up with additional missions, additional capabilities that we would ask our Guard and Reserve to assume in the future,” James said. “So I see the future of our people program to be more reliant, not less reliant, on our National Guard and Reserve.”
“More than any other pairing like this across our US military, the active, Guard and Reserve in the Air Force are inextricably linked,” said Rebecca Grant, a former Air Force official who now heads IRIS Research, in Washington. “In a way, they’re victims of their success, because the Guard has to mirror the active.”
Given the overseas war-fighting mission now expected of the Guard, Lt. Gen. Stanley “Sid” Clarke, the head of the ANG, said believes the Guard and active Air Force share the same equipment priorities.
“I think requirements obviously go hand-in-hand with the Air Force,” Clarke told Defense News. “So we have been working on things together to make sure that our aircraft and our equipment are first of all, safe, secondly reliable, and the third part would be compatible.”
“The bulk of what we have to do, that war-fighting stuff, also supports what we do at home,” he said. “Nearly 93 percent of our equipment that we have for the federal mission can support the state mission as well.”
Because of that funding strain, dual-mission equipment is gold for the ANG. A perfect example is its fleet of C-130 cargo planes.
“It can do anything from tactical airdrops to fighting fires at home,” Clarke said. “The airplane is pretty capable and so are the airmen. So they are dual-use as well. So we are trained to do the federal mission but we try to leverage all of that to do the state mission.”
The Guard operates 165 C-130s, 133 of which are older C-130H variants that need upgrades to maintain that key compatibility with the active fleet.
“The C-130 is a natural match” for doing both the Title 10 (overseas missions controlled by the military) and Title 32 missions (domestic missions controlled by governors),” Grant said.
One major upgrade needed concerns meeting Communication, Navigation, Surveillance and Air Traffic Management (CNS/ATM) standards that will be mandatory for flights over Europe by 2017 and flights in the US by 2020. Clarke called that upgrade the “most pressing” on his slate, but it’s complicated by congressional action.
On the one hand, Congress remains committed to the C-130 Avionics Modernization Program (AMP). The Air Force sought to kill the program in this year’s budget request, but the Senate Appropriations Committee protected AMP funding in its version. Critics of AMP say it does not provide the needed upgrades to meet those new requirements for the majority of the C-130H fleet, which would mean those planes could not be used in domestic operations.
The issue is large enough that in July the Adjutants General Association of the United States sent a letter to a number of senators asking for an alternative to the AMP.
“A fully funded AMP program, even if immediately restarted today with zero programmatic delays, would modernize only a small fraction of the C-130H fleet by 2020. This is unacceptable,” the letter reads. “The prudent path instead is to allow for a cost-effective ‘alternative solution’ that can be quickly accomplished while preserving a realistic fiscal path to C-130J recapitalization.”
Another option already being investigated is the Rolls-Royce Series 3.5 engine upgrade for the C-130H fleet. That program replaces inefficient components on older engines by retrofitting parts from newer engines into the Series 3 T56 engine casing, used on the C-130H and other planes.
Rolls estimates the engine upgrades will extend the life of the C-130H fleet to 2040, and an Air Force study has found it could save the service as much as $2 billion in fuel and maintenance costs. That upgrade was cleared by the Air Force in July, and Rolls expects to be on contract with the service in six to nine months.
Aside from C-130 upgrades, what are the priorities for the Air Guard?
“We are pretty much invested into everything that the Air Force does, with the exception of doing the [intercontinental ballistic missile] mission inside missile silos or the U-2 mission,” Clarke said. “Pretty much we are invested in everything else that they do out there.”
That means the Guard hopes to have a piece of whatever new systems the Air Force could look to acquire in the future, including three big recapitalization programs: the F-35 joint strike fighter, KC-46A tanker and new long-range strike-bomber (LRS-B).
The Guard already takes part in the fighter, tanker and bomber missions, so there is no reason they should not be involved as those new planes go online, Clarke said.
“We are a war-fighting component of the Air Force. ... It is just how we have become over the years here. It is not the Guard that I joined,” he said. “It is completely different, and our Guard airmen do a great job maintaining these really old airplanes. But they, at some point, will probably deserve to fly newer airplanes along with the regular Air Force. And the regular Air Force agrees with that.”
The bomber, more than any other plane, ties into the question of what the Guard will be going forward, Grant said.
“What do we want the Guard to do? Because there’s not enough airframes now, and in the future, to be exactly what it has been the last 12 years,” Grant said.
“When it comes to the LRS-B, that’s a perfect example to ask what is the Guard’s mission — is it to be a supplement for the active, or at the disposal of the state governor?” she said. “Because how you answer that is key to whether they should be involved with the new bomber.”
How could that work? Clarke sees further use of the active association model, particularly for the F-35.
“There are plans to put joint strike fighters into Guard units and likely those will come with an active association, which is fine,” Clarke said. “I think it is one of the most creative and most powerful total force tools we have.”
While the chances of the Guard adding platforms not in use by the active component are slim, there has been significant interest from Guard leaders in the Textron AirLand Scorpion jet. Not coincidentally, the company is planning to exhibit the plane at the National Guard Association of the United States conference, which begins Aug. 22 in Chicago. The plane was also invited to take part in a recent Guard exercise held in Kansas.
Textron hopes the Guard will eventually prove a huge market for the ISR/strike plane, and includes Paul Weaver , a former Air Force Maj. Gen. who lead the Guard from 1998 to 2001, as part of the Scorpion team. But budget realities could prove a challenge to adding a new platform to the Air Force inventory.
A more likely approach would be for the Scorpion to compete, and win, in the service’s T-X trainer replacement program. The company has not said it would compete, but program officials indicate that the possibility is being explored.■