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Air Guard Needs Newer Aircraft, Director Says

By Army Sgt. 1st Class Jon Soucy
Special to American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, July 29, 2009 – One of the biggest challenges facing the Air National Guard today is replacing its fleet of aircraft that are approaching the end of their service lives, the Air Guard’s director said here today.

“A big problem we have in the Air National Guard is figuring out how to recapitalize our aging fleet,” Air Force Lt. Gen. Harry M. Wyatt III said at a Defense Writers Group breakfast. The problem extends to fighters, tankers, airlifters, airborne warning and control systems and early warning radars. “It’s the whole system that is old and needs to be recapitalized,” the general said.

It’s an issue facing not only the Air Guard, but the Air Force as a whole.

“To be quite honest with you, the Air Force has the same recapitalization problem as the Air National Guard,” Wyatt said. “Ours is a little bit more acute and a little more immediate, because our airplanes are a little bit older.” And that immediacy, he added, affects the readiness status of Air Guard units.

“If you take a look at our F-16s that do the air sovereignty alert mission, 80 percent of those will be aging out within the next eight years,” he explained. “Right now, the recapitalization plan for those units doesn’t have [replacements] going to those units until the mid-2020s, and that is several years too late.”

Discussions are under way about how to retool the Air Guard fleet. “We’re working with the Air Force to address that problem, and we’re making some progress, but to date there is no plan that addresses Air National Guard issues,” Wyatt said.

One of the issues taking shape within those discussions is rebalancing the force structure of the Air Force as a whole. Wyatt said that rebalancing should come at the same rate across all components of the Air Force.

“In my opinion, since the Air National Guard provides 34 percent of the capabilities of the United States Air Force -- at 7 percent of the budget, I might add -- the smart thing to do would be to take a look at bedding down whatever capability the Air Force requires concurrently and proportionally in the Guard.”

Wyatt said he is afraid to see a return to the days of the Air Guard flying castoffs from the active duty force, citing his experience with the results of that formula. He flew the A-7 Corsair II for the Oklahoma Air National Guard in the early 1990s.

“When Desert Storm kicked off, we had some great capability within the Air National Guard and the A-7 platform,” Wyatt said. “But the active duty [Air Force] was not flying the A-7, and they were concerned with getting the top-of-the-line weapons in the fight, and we were not asked to participate.

“That seems to me to be a great waste of money,” he continued. “It makes no sense to have a platform that you’re not going to use in war.”

Another waste is not capitalizing on the years of experience that Air Guard members bring with them, the general said. “We have the most experienced pilots, the most experienced maintenance crews,” he told the group. “We are an older force, a more mature force, and if you don’t provide a platform or the capability within the Air National Guard, then that great experience withers and it dies.

“It will take you generations to regenerate that,” he said. “What the Air Guard offers is the capacity on top of what the Air Force offers.”

On the recent debate on the future funding of the F-22 Raptor versus the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, Wyatt -- who describes himself as a “platform agnostic” -- said capability is more important than the platform.

“I think we need to be in the same platform as the Air Force,” he said. “If the decision is made in the future to acquire fourth-generation airplanes, similar to what the Navy is doing with the F/A-18 purchases, then I would advocate for the Air Guard to be in those same platforms, provided it’s fielded concurrently and proportionally to the Air Guard.”

And that makes fiscal sense, said Wyatt, who added that the planes and crews often pull double duty with regard to mission sets, since many Air Guard aircraft are flown as part of the air sovereignty alert mission, but can be deployed overseas as well.

“Those same airplanes that fly air sovereignty alert, they don’t just do air sovereignty alert,” Wyatt said. “They’re written into the war plans. They do [air expeditionary force] rotations, and we participate the same as the Air Force does, so we should have the same equipment.”

Wyatt said the biggest need is maintaining the Air Guard’s capability to stay current in the roles it fills.

“What airplane we put it on, or how it’s acquired, that’s basically a decision for Congress to make,” he said. “It doesn’t make any difference to me. We just want the capability, and we need it before we lose the capability we currently have.”

(Army Sgt. 1st Class Jon Soucy serves with the National Guard Bureau.)

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Air Force Lt. Gen. Harry M. Wyatt III

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