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What The Space Force Means For The National Guard

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

All right. The president recently signed a $738 billion defense bill. This is a bill that had wide bipartisan support. What's striking about that is not just the bipartisan part but that it included funding that launches a new branch of the military - the U.S. Space Force. Space, cybersecurity - these are part of new threat assessments. Times are changing, and that includes in our reserve military forces. Here's more from Colorado Public Radio's Dan Boyce.

DAN BOYCE, BYLINE: Before we talk about this next big evolution in the National Guard, let's talk about the last one.

ANNE ARMSTRONG: 9/11.

BOYCE: That's historian Anne Armstrong.

ARMSTRONG: Director of the National Guard Memorial Museum Library and Archive.

BOYCE: In the decades before September 11, when people thought of the National Guard, Armstrong says they pictured job duties like...

ARMSTRONG: Stuffing sandbags for a river flood in the local community.

BOYCE: The National Guard was just that - national, serving in the American homeland. After 9/11, recruitment exploded, except the Guard wasn't looking to keep those recruits at home.

ARMSTRONG: Next thing they know, they're on a C-5 on their way over to Afghanistan.

BOYCE: 9/11 was the catalyst for something the Department of Defense had been slowly inching toward for a long time. The goal was to train National Guard soldiers and make them essentially interchangeable with any other battle-ready soldier. Over the last 18 years, from 9/11 on, that's really come to fruition.

ARMSTRONG: The National Guard has become more like the active duty than ever in the history of the National Guard.

BOYCE: But now comes a new pivot. This past summer, the annual National Guard Association of the U.S. Conference was held in Denver.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: On Wisconsin...

BOYCE: Guard members came in from the states and territories.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: The National Guard Association of Mississippi.

BOYCE: Over the several-day conference, top military officials struck a recurring theme. Counterterrorism is a fading priority. Competition with other world powers like Russia and China is on the rise and the importance of technology right along with it. Here's Air Force Vice Chief of Staff General Stephen Wilson telling the crowd about the modern threat from China.

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STEPHEN WILSON: Last year, they graduated eight times the number of STEM graduates that we did.

BOYCE: Eight times the people earning science and technology degrees.

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WILSON: And we have to stop thinking like we're Goliath and start thinking now like we're David.

BOYCE: The military is looking for a lot more people with skills in tech and for the Guard in particular looking to the private sector.

JAMES REEMAN: I commute to Los Angeles and usually fly three to four Delta Air Lines trips a month.

BOYCE: James Reeman lives in Denver and flies big commercial jets for his day job.

REEMAN: And then in between, I'll serve for the Air National Guard, and I usually average between four to 10 days a month.

BOYCE: Reeman commands soldiers who focus above the atmosphere - the Colorado Guard's 138th Space Control Squadron. About half of the National Guard's space personnel are based in Colorado. The state's also a likely location for many of the increased space resources sought by the Trump administration. Reeman was brought into instill the warrior's mindset he learned as a former fighter pilot in his new soldiers, who spend most of their time tied to a desk and computer.

REEMAN: To kind of help these space war fighters, as we call them, realize they're not a support function anymore. They're at the leading edge. They're war fighters. They're relevant.

BOYCE: Even more relevant because of their non-military day jobs. Reeman reports to Colonel Micah Fesler. Fesler says the military is realizing more and more it needs to leverage the innovations from private companies, especially in the space and cybersecurity realms.

MICAH FESLER: We can take advantage of their expertise on the outside and use that on the inside.

BOYCE: And here, the Guard might have a leg up over regular military service. The country's top space and cybersecurity talent may not want to leave their lucrative, full-time, private sector jobs. The Guard gives those high-end professionals another option for military service.

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WILSON: Thank you.

BOYCE: Back at last summer's conference, Air Force Vice Chief Stephen Wilson told the gathered guardsmen the Pentagon knows how valuable they are.

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WILSON: Never before in our nation's history will our nation rely on our National Guard like they do today.

BOYCE: He then said the National Guard provides 40% of the Air Force's offensive space capability, a percentage they plan to grow significantly in the next few years. For NPR News, I'm Dan Boyce in Colorado Springs.

(SOUNDBITE OF NIKLAS AMAN'S "KALEIDOSCOPE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.