ARLINGTON, Va. – As Congress mulls over the president's fiscal year 2023 budget request, the way the National Guard will use its portion of the funding to prepare for near-peer competition was of interest to some lawmakers.
"When we look at the threats that we face, the biggest thing we want to do is deter that [threat] so we do not get into a fight," said Army Gen. Daniel R. Hokanson, chief of the National Guard Bureau. "By having a modernized, relevant and capable reserve component to augment our active forces — I think is perhaps one of the best deterrents that we have."
Speaking Tuesday before the Senate Appropriations Committee, subcommittee on defense, Hokanson said modernization is a key part of deterrence.
"We just have to make sure that as we go through the modernization process of all of our services, to make sure that our reserve components — particularly the National Guard, as the combat reserve of the Army and the Air Force — our equipment is deployable; it's sustainable, and it's interoperable on the battlefield."
One particular area of modernization, Hokanson said, involves the aircraft flown by the Air National Guard — in particular the fighter aircraft fleet, which includes the F-22 Raptor, F-15 Eagle, F-16 Fighting Falcon and A-10 aircraft.
"If I could pick one field, I would say [it's] the fighter fleet that we have in the Air National Guard," Hokanson said. "We've got six squadrons of F-15Cs and Ds, which need to be replaced, and seven squadrons of the pre-block F-16s, the older ones."
The National Guard, Hokanson said, has 25 fighter squadrons — each critical to national defense.
"It's important that we identify, really, a way forward to recapitalize those fleets with newer aircraft so they can continue to provide … 30% of the Air Force's air capability," he said. "When we look at the future threat environment, we want to make sure that, No. 1, we can meet everything we're being asked to do, but then we can also operate on that battlefield successfully to fight and win."
Maintaining a credible National Guard — one that can effectively deter — requires more than the best equipment. It also requires the best people. The Air National Guard has more than 106,000 officers and enlisted members serving in 89 flying units and 579 mission support units. Since the COVID-19 pandemic, the National Guard has faced challenges in finding Americans to serve.
"It's a very difficult environment now," Hokanson said. "A lot of competitors for the young men and women that we're trying to bring into the organization are offering a lot of the benefits that historically only we provided."
On the front lines of the fight to bring in new talent, Hokanson said, are National Guard recruiters — an indispensable tool for getting the right people into the Guard.
"What we have found, however, is there's really, there's no replacement for having the right number of recruiters," he said. "Coming out of the COVID environment, where after the past two years it's been difficult to have face-to-face interactions, we're getting our recruiters back out there."
Challenges facing those recruiters include the dwindling number of Americans who are eligible to serve and stiff competition from the private sector, which is also looking for good talent.
"[We're] looking at the right bonuses to bring people in," he said. "But most importantly is having the right number of recruiters so that they can get out there, identify and have the conversation; ... [we've] got to find the right people."