New commitments need to be made to the nation's airmen and others who defend North America from threats to its air sovereignty, the Air National Guard's senior officer told members of Congress in Washington on April 22.
Air Force Lt. Gen. Harry M. Wyatt III, director of the Air Guard, testified before the House Armed Services Committee's readiness subcommittee in a hearing on the nation's Air Sovereignty Alert operations.
The Air Guard operates 16 of the 18 ASA sites located across the United States to protect its airspace. ASA relies on a host of agencies, including U.S. Northern Command, North American Aerospace Defense Command and the Federal Aviation Administration.
"Their service displays a commitment to job No. 1: defense of the homeland," Wyatt said. "Our reluctance to treat Air Sovereignty Alert as an enduring mission continues to impact the men and women serving in this very important mission area."
The general explained that past funding for the mission has been inconsistent, and that equipment quickly is nearing the end of its service life.
About 80 percent of the Air Guard's F-16 Fighting Falcons, which fly the largest portion of the nation's ASA missions, will reach the end of their life span in eight years. Officials also said the average age of Air Guard aircraft is more than 25 years, with KC-135 Stratotankers being the oldest at 49 years. KC-135s support the ASA mission through aerial refueling.
If Air Guard units received the "fifth-generation" fighters, such as the F-22 and F-35 sooner rather than later, the readiness issues could be avoided, Wyatt said.
"Every day without a solution, this situation becomes more and more urgent," he told the subcommittee. "The risk of doing nothing is unacceptable, and we are examining all options to address recapitalization of these aircraft."
In addition to equipment, Wyatt pointed out the need to recognize ASA as a steady-state mission, which would provide predictability to Guard members serving on year-to-year state active duty tours to support it.
"I think many falsely believe this mission only includes a handful of fighter pilots," he said. "They forget about the maintainers, communicators, command and control, life support, intelligence officers, security forces, and others who are also critical components to the execution of this mission."
In total, excluding tanker support, more than 3,000 airmen are responsible for the Air Sovereignty Alert mission, officials said.
The issue also affects retention, readiness, and employer and family support, Wyatt said.
"Recognition that Air Sovereignty Alert is within the steady-state portion of the global defense posture, requiring long-range planning and consistent funding, is extremely important to providing predictability to the units supporting this mission area," he said.
"Our airmen are leaning forward, standing side by side with their joint and coalition partners, to maintain the safety of our skies and our borders," the general continued. "We -- all of us -- have a responsibility to add stability to their funding and to bridge the equipment capability gaps that exist on the horizon."
(Author Air Force Master Sgt. Mike R. Smith serves at the National Guard Bureau.)
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