The air defense mission faded, though, and Aerospace Defense Command was inactivated in 1980.
By Sept. 11, that defensive line had dwindled to seven Air National Guard alert sites. The minutes before the terrorists flew the hijacked airliners into the World Trade Center and Pentagon saw North American Aerospace Defense Command frantically scramble Air National Guard interceptors, but to no avail. The closest alert sites were in Massachusetts and southern Virginia, far from the action in New York and Washington, D.C. These ANG aircraft could not reach the hijackers in time to stop them.
Much has changed since then. Homeland defense and the role played by the National Guard and Reserve have become subjects of utmost military gravity and emphasis. Few doubt that major additional duties are in store for the nation’s on-call troops. DOD officials and analysts say Sept. 11 marks another milestone in the revolution that was already shifting much of the burden of US defense onto the shoulders of citizen airmen and soldiers.
In many ways, it’s a new world for the nation’s reserve components.
“The 11th of September … has caused every aircrew member and every person in uniform to think about the challenges that we never, never thought we’d ever face,” said Maj. Gen. Paul A. Weaver Jr., the recently retired officer who was ANG director on the day of the attacks. “Americans do not shoot down airliners with innocent women, children, and men onboard, and this was new to us. … We never thought we would even be there. … Our thinking was always looking inward out, looking at the [Soviet] Bear [bombers] coming down the northeast corridor or drug runners coming in from the Gulf. Never did we think that the threat would be from within.”
For many reasons, the Guard and Reserve of all armed services fit naturally into the homeland defense mission. Even before Sept. 11, a Reserve Component Employment 2005 study, conducted under the auspices of the Office of the Secretary of Defense, the Joint Staff, and the Office of Reserve Affairs, made that point explicitly, suggesting reserve forces as the military units of first resort in terms of homeland defense.
As state militia, National Guard forces already work closely with governors in preparing for civil emergencies, and Guard leaders are firmly rooted in state political systems. While under state authority, Guard forces are also not restrained (as are active duty forces) by the posse comitatus law forbidding the military from performing domestic law enforcement functions. Reserve forces are also scattered in communities throughout the United States, making them readily accessible for emergency response operations.
Since1998, the National Guard has been standing up specialized military teams to respond to catastrophic terrorist attacks. The Pentagon announced in November that there will be 32 of these units–called Weapons of Mass Destruction–Civil Support Teams–to respond to domestic terrorist attacks that involve such weapons. They will be stationed in 31 states, with California getting two teams.
Weaver maintains that, as policy-makers and lawmakers in Washington think through the implications of tasking the military for homeland defense, the inherent advantages of the National Guard and Reserve will become even more evident.
As future discussions on homeland defense unfold, state governors and the National Guard will take a leading role, said Weaver. Just from what’s been done since Sept. 11, he stated, from providing airport security to flying air defense over an expanded area of the United States, the National Guard will become a very big part of the future homeland defense force.
Indeed, the heavy reliance on the Guard and Reserve in response to the Sept. 11 attack suggests a pivotal role for the nation’s reserve forces both in homeland defense and the overseas war on terrorism. Just three days after the attacks in New York and Washington, for instance, President Bush authorized the Pentagon to mobilize up to 50,000 reserve members from the Air Force, Army, Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard. It soon became clear that the military would exceed that number and need even more.
The partial mobilization order signed by Bush also authorizes the call-up of as many as one million reservists for up to two years, if necessary. Such a partial mobilization offers service leaders greater flexibility to call up retirees as needed for various missions.
Guard and Reserve officials say the rapid reservist call-up in the immediate wake of the September attacks also sent a strong message of US intent and purpose.
“When [the President calls] the National Guard up, [he’s] calling America up,” said Weaver. “We’re key parts of the community, whether we are firemen or policemen or bankers or lawyers or commercial airline pilots.” And he noted that because the Guard is there in the communities, when it’s called up it sends a “magic” message to the nation and all of its citizens, because they associate themselves directly with Guardsmen.
With nearly 30,000 Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve Command members called up by late November, USAF was setting the pace among the armed forces. More than 16,000 Army National Guard and Army Reserve soldiers had also been called up.
Given numerous terrorist alerts at home and new requests for additional security at federal installations pouring in daily, Pentagon officials confirmed that they had already exceeded the original call-up of 50,000 reservists. Most of the Guardsmen and many Reservists have reported for duty on the home front.
Already, uniformed Guardsmen and Reservists have become a highly visible presence on America’s post-Sept. 11 landscape. NORAD, for instance, has rapidly increased the number of “strip alert” bases within the US, expanding the network from seven to 26 sites. The Air National Guard has provided virtually all of the F-15 and F-16 fighters flying Combat Air Patrol over major US urban areas as part of Operation Noble Eagle.
More than 6,000 National Guardsmen have also deployed to some 420 airports around the nation to provide extra security and calm the fears of the traveling public.
Bush Administration officials announced Sept. 27 that the federal government would cover the estimated six-month cost of $150 million for posting the National Guard troops at airport security checkpoints. More recently, federal officials broadened the duties of Guard troops deployed at airports to include patrolling airport perimeters and parking areas.
For their part, Reserve forces have replaced many active duty troops at Stateside bases, performing in security roles, as firemen, air traffic controllers, logisticians, and in other jobs. They have also augmented the Dover AFB, Del., mortuary crews. AFRC port mortuary specialists were among the first volunteers after the September attacks.
AFRC tanker aircrews and maintainers are also supporting the Operation Noble Eagle CAPs with air refueling. Other Reservists have been participating in Operation Enduring Freedom, some as early volunteers who helped establish the initial mobility air bridge to move personnel and equipment overseas.
National Guard forces have also taken the lead in securing other critical infrastructure. For example, National Guardsmen in Massachusetts took command of providing perimeter security at the Pilgrim nuclear power plant in Plymouth. Guardsmen in Washington, D.C., have recently augmented the overworked Capitol Hill police force, to help protect the United States Capitol and House and Senate office buildings.
In Washington state’s Puget Sound, some of the nearly 3,000 Coast Guard Reservists called to active duty routinely patrol the area’s harbors and waterways, guarding against the terrorist threat. In California, Gov. Gray Davis dispatched Guardsmen to patrol four of the state’s big suspension bridges–structures that he thought were in peril of terrorist attack.
National Guard and Reserve forces assigned to homeland defense missions will work directly at times with active units, according to Gen. William F. Kernan, commander in chief of US Joint Forces Command. That command has responsibility for most US-based military forces. It was recently given defense of the nation’s territory and coasts as an additional mission.
Officials at the federal level and the governors of the states are looking very closely at critical infrastructure with an eye to identifying what security enhancements might be needed, said Kernan.
Rumsfeld recently designated Joint Forces Command as the command responsible for supplying military assistance to homeland defense missions. Kernan has established a 90-man Homeland Defense Directorate to coordinate operations.
Kernan said that national critical infrastructure includes transportation hubs–airports, seaports, rail terminals, etc.–that are located in states. For those transportation nodes that are critical to the nation and beyond the power of a governor to protect, “we would make an assessment as to how best to protect them” whether with additional National Guard troops or with other assets.
In that sense, he said, after the 11 million first responders in the nation’s police and fire departments and rescue services, the next line of defense is the National Guard. “Those are the people who routinely work with the state [and who] have developed emergency preparedness plans that they are ready to execute.”
ANG officials emphasize that their forces, while they have taken the lead in many Noble Eagle homeland defense missions, are also integrally involved in Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan and Central Asia. In the total Air Force, Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve Command forces account for 64 percent of the tactical airlift, 55 percent of aerial refueling and strategic tankers, 38 percent of tactical air support, and 27 percent of strategic airlift and refueling.
Many members of AFRC’s 919th Special Operations Wing based at Duke Field, Fla., were also activated in the early days of the call-up. The 919th includes the 711th Special Operations Squadron, which flies the MC-130E Combat Talon for clandestine insertion of special operations forces. The unit also includes the 5th Special Operations Squadron, which flies the MC-130P Combat Shadow, for special operations aerial refueling.
“Everything the Air Force is doing, we are doing,” Weaver said. “Literally, the Air Force can’t go to war without the Air National Guard and the Air Force Reserve.”
Whether talking airlift, tanker support, ground support, or combat operations, he emphasized, all of them are being performed by active duty units, Air Guardsmen, and Air Reservists. That’s in keeping with the Total Force philosophy, which doesn’t differentiate missions as being for the active duty, Guard, or Reserve. “It is truly a Total Force mission.”
Especially as the US military has evolved into a more expeditionary force over the past decade, that close integration with the active force has taken a toll in terms of operations tempo for the Guard and Reserve. Even before Sept. 11, many experts were concerned that reserve forces were being pushed to the limit by a continuous stream of peacekeeping and smaller-scale contingency operations in places such as Iraq, Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, and Kosovo.
In recent years, for instance, reserve forces have contributed 13 million duty days annually to ongoing operations, a 13-fold increase over the 1980s level of roughly one million duty days each year.
The Air Force took a major step in adapting to those demands in late 1999 when it began organizing itself into 10 Aerospace Expeditionary Forces, following signs of serious personnel strains as a result of closely spaced deployments. Reserve forces now account for roughly 10 percent of personnel involved in each 15-month AEF cycle, serving alongside active duty counterparts in virtually all ongoing Air Force operations.
A few years back, said Weaver, the optempo of the active duty Air Force was so high that people were “leaving in droves,” and there were major problems with retention and recruiting. That forced the Air Force to turn to the Air Guard and Reserve for help, and in turn that became “a forcing mechanism” for the Air Force to properly outfit the reserves with modern equipment.
The result, said Weaver, is that the Air Guard now runs about 25,000 Air Guardsmen through each 15-month-long AEF cycle, which means that, in any 30-month period, roughly half of the 108,000 men and women in the Air National Guard are involved in real-world operations. That’s a much greater percentage than the Guard initially anticipated, but “it has been a pleasure and a joy to watch all of this happening.”
By integrating themselves so closely into ongoing operations, the Guard and Reserve have been largely transformed. In the four decades of the Cold War, for instance, reserve forces encountered few call-ups. Since then, reserve forces have participated in Desert Storm in 1991, Deliberate Force in 1995, Allied Force in 1999, the decade-long no-fly zone enforcement operations over Iraq, and Operations Enduring Freedom and Noble Eagle.
Though they are proud to be involved in front-line operations, many leaders of the Guard and Reserve have become increasingly wary of reaching the saturation point in terms of contributing to ongoing operations, with the subsequent separations for reservists from their families and civilian jobs. Efforts to shoulder a large portion of the homeland defense burden will add to those concerns.
A number of recent news reports, for instance, have documented the hardships involved in the reserve call-up for Noble Eagle and Enduring Freedom. Because so many of the initial National Guard units activated were military police, for instance, a number of local police departments complained that their ranks were being depleted at a time when their forces were stretched thin in responding to terrorist alerts.
The financial hardships of reservists called to active duty have also figured heavily in recent accounts. Many reservists take large drops in pay when activated.
Current law requires only an unpaid leave of absence for those called to active duty, though Guardsmen and Reservists must be reinstated with the same status, seniority, and retirement benefits upon their return. According to a recent survey, only seven percent of 200 companies surveyed had an existing policy of paying employees the difference between their regular and military pay.
To fully gauge the impact of increased deployments on employers, the Office of Reserve Affairs sent out its first-ever survey in 1999. The study revealed that most employers supported the reserve service of their employees, but many complained that reserve call-ups were too long and unpredictable. Employers also complained that reservists signed on to successive deployments voluntarily and their jobs were nonetheless protected by federal law.
Guard and Reserve officials say that adding flexibility to operations is the key to maximizing the contribution of reserve forces. For instance, instead of assigning one reservist to a job, as might be done with an active duty service member, officials have found it better to have two or more reservists doing that job in rotation, keeping time away from home limited for any one individual. Air Guard and Air Force Reserve Command units have also started sharing forward deployed aircraft in some cases to help enable the reservists to deploy for shorter intervals.
ANG fighters are among the oldest in the Air Force fleet, averaging 20 years of service. Weaver, however, expresses a relatively upbeat view of wear and tear on Guard equipment. He told reporters on Nov. 5 that ANG aircraft flying round-the-clock CAP missions are in good shape and will be able to conduct such operations indefinitely. “We’ve modernized the aircraft extensively in the last four years,” he said. “Maintenance is one of our core competencies. We are flying a lot more than anticipated, but our aircraft are in great shape.”
This robust rate of equipment modernization, coupled with good retention and recruiting in recent years, has left the Air Guard prepared to absorb the extra workload of Enduring Freedom and Noble Eagle, according to Weaver. In the aftermath of Sept. 11, many reservists have reported to duty determined to lend a hand.
“Looking at where we are today, we are busier in the Air National Guard than we’ve ever been in our history, [yet] our retention has never been better,” said Weaver. In fact, he added, “the units that are busiest normally have the highest retention rates as well.”
James Kitfield is the defense correspondent for National Journal in Washington, D.C. His most recent article for Air Force Magazine, “The Dangerous World of 2015,” appeared in March 2001.