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Generals: Proposal to move guardsmen into Space Force would ‘jeopardize’ national security

General Dan Hokanson, National Guard bureau chief, is shown in an interview with VOA on April 8, 2024.
General Dan Hokanson, National Guard bureau chief, is shown in an interview with VOA on April 8, 2024.

The head of the National Guard and other top Guard generals say a new legislative proposal that would move National Guard units with space missions into the Space Force would jeopardize national security by potentially creating a void in space expertise across the military.

Asked about the proposal during an exclusive interview late Monday, General Dan Hokanson, National Guard bureau chief, told VOA that 86% of space-related Guard members who were surveyed on the subject have signaled they would prefer to stay in the National Guard and would not switch over to an active-duty service branch.

“Even if only 50% would go into that new organization,” Hokanson said, “that would significantly reduce the level of experience and really the operational experience that our guardsmen bring every single day today. And I would hate to do anything that jeopardizes that.”

Instead, he has long supported creating a Space National Guard, which would absorb the Guard members who work in space missions. Officials say about a third of the U.S. military’s total space capacity resides within the National Guard.

The proposal “would set a dangerous precedent, and it would jeopardize our national security,” Major General Laura Clellan, National Guard adjutant general for the state of Colorado, told reporters earlier Monday.

Major General Richard Neely, National Guard adjutant general for the state of Illinois, added that it would create a “significant strategic gap.”

Separately, Hokanson said the National Guard was adding six new State Partnership Programs in 2024, more than any year since 2003. These include recent NATO member Finland, who will partner with the commonwealth of Virginia, and Sweden, whose U.S. state partner will be announced later this week.

Hokanson pointed to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as a primary reason for the sharp increase in State Partnership Program participants.

He said training of Ukrainian pilots on F-16s in Arizona remained “on track.”

This interview was edited for brevity and clarity.

VOA: What are your thoughts about moving National Guard members with space missions into the Space Force?

General Dan Hokanson, National Guard bureau chief: When you look at the capabilities that the National Guard brings ... about 45% of them work in the aerospace or high-tech industry ... so they not only have their skills as space professionals within the National Guard, but they also bring their civilian skill set to work ... I think it's that capability that we should retain in the National Guard. ... I think the best thing personally for me, for our nation, is to allow us to create a component within the National Guard so the same people in the same town with the same civilian jobs can be doing what they did last drill weekend the next weekend.

VOA: Major General Laura Clellan says this proposal would jeopardize national security. Do you agree with that?

Hokanson: Yeah, I think I do. And the reason I say that is, when you look at, about 86% said they would really rather stay in the National Guard, and when you look at our space professionals, we can't afford to lose any capability at all. And even if that's more than actually would [leave the military], even if only 50% would go into that new organization, now you've got to retrain the 50% that don't. And that would significantly reduce the level of experience and really the operational experience that our guardsmen bring every single day today.

VOA: Naysayers say cost is one of the reasons that a Space Guard isn’t needed.

Hokanson: I would say that it's cost-neutral. Frankly, I have the money within our budget ... and it's basically replacing the name tapes on their uniforms and the signs in front of the buildings and the flags for those units. ...That cost would come if you created the other organization, as well, and so, there's no disruption. It's a continuity of the levels of readiness, and frankly, it keeps the organization put together and retains all that experience.

VOA: Explain the State Partnership Program and where it is going this year.

Hokanson: It originated in 1993 after the fall of the Berlin Wall, and it helped [former Soviet Union nations] transition from a communist system to a democratic system, or civilian control of the military. And if you look at the original three Baltic states — Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia — 30 years later, they're now NATO's allies, and they've completed the transition. But if you look at where we are today, we've got partnerships with 106 countries, and it truly is an incredibly great program.

VOA: And this year, the program is adding Finland, Palau, Saudi Arabia, Sierra Leone, Sweden and Tanzania.

Hokanson: Yes.

VOA: I think 2003 is the last time that this many partnerships were added. Why now?

Hokanson: I think what you're seeing in many cases is with Russia's unprovoked invasion of Ukraine, many countries are looking at, ‘Hey, we never thought a war in Europe would happen again, and it has.’ They're realizing ... that they need to have [military] capability primarily ... to deter people from doing things to challenge their borders. ... But also, the National Guard is very involved in domestic responses in terms of natural disasters. And when you look at the global environment now, we're seeing an increase in natural disasters and sometimes an increase in scope and scale. And because we have learned a lot, and we've really tried to instill what we've learned, we share that with our partners.

VOA: Finland and Sweden have made a massive about-face from military neutrality to joining NATO and picking up a state partnership. What states are partnering with them?

Hokanson: We will announce it later this week. Many states want to be partners with Sweden. The same with Finland, but Finland did have an existing relationship with the Virginia National Guard going back over 20 years. In the case of Finland, because they've got an established relationship with Finland, they'll be partnered with Virginia. In terms of Sweden, there's a lot of competition. And of course, Sweden has a say in that, so we're hoping later this week to have an answer.

VOA: Has the partnership between Niger and Indiana been paused?

Hokanson: No, they still maintain communication. And obviously, we're working closely with the military to determine really the level of engagement that they want to continue with in the future. We don't want to do anything that they don't want to do, and vice versa with our training, as well.

VOA: Where does training in Ukraine stand now?

Hokanson: We continue to provide that capability. We currently have the Mississippi National Guard that’s training the Ukrainians in Germany. And right now, we plan to continue doing that indefinitely like we had before the war. And so right now, the [congressional] funding has gotten us there. When you look at the training of their F-16 fighter pilots, which we're doing in Arizona with the Arizona National Guard right now, we have the funding for those students. But I think if we increase the student load, it may require additional funding to cover that.

VOA: There's debate now on whether the United States should continue supporting Ukraine through funds. Should the U.S. continue to support its Ukrainian partners

Hokanson: I can't answer for our country, but I will tell you, visiting the Ukrainian soldiers, seeing our soldiers training with them, it is great value added to them. And you've got a country here that's trying to defend their borders and trying to prevent the invasion from another country. And we're doing everything we can to train them, to defend their nation to the best they absolutely can.

VOA: Is the National Guard helping to train the Taiwanese?

Hokanson: We've had training exercises with the Taiwanese for years, but nothing like what we've been doing with Ukraine.

VOA: What do you think is your biggest accomplishment?

Hokanson: It’s meeting every single mission we've been asked to do. And you look at all the things that occurred — we had COVID, we had Jan. 6, we had the withdrawal from Afghanistan. We've had multiple major disasters. We've had the war in Ukraine. We've got the war in Gaza. Our guardsmen, the biggest accomplishment was them. They answered every call they were given whenever they were needed, wherever they were needed. ... And really, that's not my accomplishment. It's our team facilitating them, supporting them and their families and their employers so they could do all that.