Lt. Gen. Michael A. Loh is the director of the Air National Guard. Air Force Magazine Digital Editor Jennifer-Leigh Oprihory interviewed Loh in February, touching on the Guard mobilization in the nation’s capital, the ANG’s COVID-19 response, and more. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Q. The National Guard deployments to the nation’s capital was unprecedented. What was the full extent of the Air National Guard’s role?
A. The National Guard has always been on mission for the inauguration. [But] the events of Jan. 6 absolutely changed everything, as we witnessed the horrific acts of people overrunning the nation’s capital. … Within hours, the D.C. National Guard deployed, … that included Air National Guard. … It was a Wednesday. They were called up in the afternoon, so they had already done a day of work. They were at home, some of ’em, and also they were at their normal job, and they reported into their work centers, were outfitted with batons, shields, masks, helmets, and then put together like they had done back in June, on the front lines on the west steps of the Capitol. … And they stood that line against that angry mob, from that time until they were relieved … about [2 a.m.]. And … that angry mob at the other side were out there all night, doing things like calling them traitors to their country and the like. It was a very emotional event, but also [a] very proud moment for both the Air National Guard and the Army National Guard as they held that line and, quite frankly, let Congress do their work.
Then, boy, that led to a series of “OK, we’re not gonna to let this happen for the inauguration, … we are gonna have … a peaceful transfer of power. And, so, what do we need?” And that’s when the National Guard moved over an Army Corps—over 25,000 Soldiers and Airmen—into the nation’s capital for the inauguration. … Both Chief Williams and I spent many days down there … talking with the Soldiers and Airmen, and talking about the significance of this moment in our nation’s history. … You could see it in the face of the Airmen—they knew. I mean, it was a proud moment for them, as well as a proud moment for us. … Simultaneously, the Air National Guard had to move those folks, and so we actually moved over a division’s worth of Soldiers and Airmen and their equipment into D.C. via air. You know, the air power that we talk about a lot, [and] the logistics necessary to make that happen. … This took a Total Force effort, so it wasn’t just the Air National Guard. … The Reserves helped us out, outfitting KC-46s with seats … Active duty, the Reserves, and the Guard moving those forces in and out of [Joint Base] Andrews [in Maryland] quickly so that no airplanes spent the night. And so we actually airlifted over … 13,000 Guardsmen in and out, and over 11,032 short tons of cargo. … [Making it] the largest domestic military response since Hurricane Katrina back in 2005.
Q. How did last summer’s deployments for civil unrest inform the D.C. mission this year?
A. Because of the enormity of it, back in June, after the tragic death of George Floyd and the civil unrest and the racial disparity things that went on, we went out there to do civil disturbance operations. And so, we were training additional forces in order to do that. … I mean, we used cyber professionals in that time frame. We used the logisticians. It wasn’t just security forces. … We were able to train … forces in these mission sets. … This time, obviously, there’s no notice. … They took the forces that … had been trained previously, six months before, and were able to utilize them a little bit quicker.
Q. Let’s talk about the COVID-19 vaccines. Maj. Gen. Jeff Taliaferro from the Joint Staff testified recently that about one in three U.S. troops have declined the vaccine. How is the vaccine playing among the Air National Guard?
A. I have a little over 24,000 that have taken at least the first dose, [and] … compared to the other components and services, that’s actually higher. … [I heard], anecdotally, … just like General Taliaferro said, it’s about a third … have passed on taking the shot. I don’t know if they actually denied it, or they just said, ‘No, I’ll pass.’ [This is] a young, healthy population, and they’re dealing with parents and grandparents that can’t get the vaccine right now. There are members that go, ‘Hey, I know I am not at the biggest risk, and so use it for those that are at the higher risk.’ So, I can’t tell you how many would have … actually would have refused it. … But I have heard from units, because I asked, “Why are they turning it] down?” [And they tell me,] ‘Sir, most people are telling us, we aren’t the population that’s at risk. You need to stick that vaccine into the population that is at risk.’ That’s very noble.
Q. It’s been quite a year—COVID-19, the summer riots, the insurrection in D.C. How have the call-ups affected morale and retention?
A. You talked about the domestic operations, but … we actually extended deployments [for troops] overseas. When this thing kicked off, we had probably about 3,000—I think that’s a normal, round number we have deployed overseas—in combat zones, and now we have the restrictions of movement, the quarantine, in each location. So imagine being on a six-month deployment, and then all of a sudden that’s it and now I can’t get forces to replace you. You’re still on mission. … Some extensions [went on] for two to three months. … But the families have been resilient. …. We live by the motto, “Always Ready, Always There!” So when they saw this occur, they go, “Well, I understand why.” And as soon as you can understand the why, it becomes a lot easier.
Our commanders and our family programs coordinators, you know, our spouse programs, all of those came together, and then of course, the community … all came together to support the family members, and to over communicate with families, and then over communicate with their employers on expectation management.
The response from the homeland, you’ve seen it: Unprecedented. What gets lost in the civil disturbance operations of the summer, and of course, now, is all the hurricanes [and our] largest wildfire season. We had folks on the front lines for wildfires, hurricanes, floods. At one time, over one in five National Guard member[s] [were] mobilized on operations somewhere in the world … over 20 percent.
Now, the good news is, I still had about 80 percent as that strategic reserve, so if something else happened in the world, I could still respond. But, that is a high ops tempo.
[Even so] … my retention numbers are extremely high. … I also haven’t seen my recruiting numbers go down. People still want to join and be part of this national defense architecture that we have in the National Guard. So both of those have remained high.
And then, the morale of the organization. You know, it’s one thing to go over and fight a nation’s wars offshore. It’s another to help your neighbor. And that’s where the National Guard excels. We’re in all the communities. We’re in all the counties out there, parishes, and all that. And so it’s that fabric—of helping your neighbor when things happen, and they can’t help themselves—that makes the National Guard unique.
Q. One of the surprises from the Jan. 6 insurrection was the number of former military members who participated. That’s prompted concerns about extremism in the force. What is the ANG doing to understand this issue?
A. So, let me talk about extremism … we don’t tolerate it, OK? Our policies expressly prohibit advocating any supremacist, extremist, gang activity, criminal gang … ideology or any of that. … And we reject participation in any of those events.
Now, do I know if it’s widespread? I’m gonna go back to racial disparity. We didn’t know how … widespread it was, until we did some reports. … We need to go figure it out. … Short answer is? I don’t know yet. [But] I do know this. We’re going to do training. And I also note … if you see something, please say something, and then we can go out and we can investigate. … Right now, extremism in the ranks is worrisome because it’s an unknown. … I’ll give you a much better answer probably a year from now.
Q. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin ordered a stand- down. Do you have a tentative game plan yet for the stand-downs within ANG?
A. I think the biggest thing that we need to talk about with our Airmen is this: Why do we serve? Go back to the core values of the United States Air Force. … And then let’s have an open dialogue … and maybe have uncomfortable conversations, kinda like we did with racial disparity. … Let’s make sure we understand what prohibited activities we have, and then how can we prevent extremism in our ranks. … The best thing we can do is roll out a training program to the local leaders that says, “Here’s what it is. Here’s what it’s not. … Here’s protected speech, and that’s what it looks like—you know, we should still have free speech—here’s the things that are not gonna be tolerated in the military. But then, more importantly is, here’s why you serve. You know, service before self.” If we can concentrate on the why [extremism] hurts and harms us, then I think we’ll be better off in the end.
Q. Acting Air Force Secretary John P. Roth and Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. C.Q. Brown Jr. recently ordered a Department of the Air Force-wide investigation into security at USAF and Space Force installations. What can you tell us about security from an ANG perspective?
A. I have 76 Air National Guard installations that I’m responsible and accountable for securing, and our defenders are out there each and every day doing [a] wonderful job. … [Yet so far in] 2021, we’ve had 13 installation breaches, [which] we define as, did they make it through or try to make it through? Nine of those 13 were at installation control points. [But most of these are accidental.] Most of them come in, they don’t realize that they’re coming on a base, that they’re supposed to stop, and they pass through. Good news is, none of them have caused any damage. I’ve had a couple where people have tried to jump the fence and steal stuff, [who were] caught. … If you follow the standard operating procedures, and you’re able to do some things like we have with other intrusion detection systems, like cameras and those types of things, we are actually very secure, and people will feel very secure being in our base. … The other piece is, every Airman is a sensor. The community around our installations are sensors. So if you see something that’s just not right, we have people that’ll say something—that’s kind of being that part of the community. …. And of course, we also practice …. intruder exercises, we practice insider threat exercises. And so by practicing … we’re able to actually keep very secure locations.