‘Mission failure across the board’: Officials warn staff changes will devastate Alaska’s Air National Guard

Dozens of Guard members say they will quit rather than see their salaries and benefits diminished under a new federal directive, which could upend national security missions based in Alaska.

Staffing changes ordered by the National Guard Bureau in Washington, D.C., have the potential to degrade Alaska’s Air National Guard to the point of mission failure in the coming months, according to local guard members and elected officials.

In the worst-case scenario, leaders are warning, by this summer the Air Guard may not be able to carry out the civilian search and rescue operations many Alaskans have come to depend on as a last resort, or be able to reliably field the teams necessary to intercept Russian military aircraft approaching American airspace.

“It’s pretty clear,” U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, said in an interview. “It is not nuanced when you talk about mission failure. It means you cannot do the mission.”

The staffing changes are part of a nationwide effort by the National Guard Bureau to standardize personnel across all the Air National Guards in American states and territories. In January, the director of the Air National Guard, Lt. Gen. Michael A. Loh, sent a letter outlining the personnel adjustments and their timeline to the adjutants general in charge of all 54 Guards, including Maj. Gen. Torrence Saxe in Alaska.

That letter prompted alarm among Alaska’s Guard members and led some to reach out to the state’s congressional delegation in the hopes of halting, or at least delaying, the changes before they’re required to go into effect on Oct. 1 of this year.

The adjustments are technical and bureaucratic. They involve converting some 80 positions from a category known as Active Guard and Reserve, AGR, to Dual Status Technicians, or techs. On paper, according to the National Guard, this is an apples-to-apples transfer that will not affect staffing levels.

“All actions are a zero-sum under Congressionally approved end-strength, driven by program. These changes will not affect the (Alaska National Guard’s) overall military footprint,” wrote Col. Kristin Haley, deputy director, manpower, personnel, recruiting and services for the Air National Guard, in response to an interview request.

But members of Alaska’s Air National Guard insist it is not apples to apples: The differences in the AGR and tech positions are significant, so much so that nearly everyone who stands to be affected will leave the Guard instead of converting to the latter category, threatening to upend staffing levels for years to come.


“It’s basically mission failure across the board,” said Maj. Jeremiah Johnson, a combat systems officer with the 211th Rescue Squadron of the 176th Wing based at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, whose position stands to be converted under the Guard’s program.

“I am potentially on the chopping block,” he said.

A code-leveling initiative

The changes underway are part of an initiative from the National Guard Bureau titled Program Element Code Leveling that’s aimed at reducing discrepancies in staffing among the country’s 54 distinct National Guard units. In January, the central Air National Guard sent out guidance on adjustments to what’s known as the Unit Manpower Document, essentially the number of different positions allotted to each state and territory’s National Guard.

“The full-time leveling reset was driven by the desire to achieve equity across all units resourced by the same program,” wrote Haley, with the National Guard Bureau.

The leveling initiative is built around the assertion that AGR and tech positions are interchangeable.

AGRs work full-time within Air National Guards on active-duty status more or less the same as airmen or soldiers in the regular military. Unlike conventional Guard members who hold other jobs and participate in drill trainings on weekends, AGRs have no other employment. While they fall under Title 32 of the U.S. Code, their “status allows quick conversion to Title 10 USC when needed, such as in response to a national security incident or state emergency response,” according to a memorandum submitted by the Alaska Department of Military and Veterans Affairs in February. “These types of positions provide the most flexibility for training and operationally capable guardsmen.”

AGRs enjoy many of the same benefits as active-duty troops, including eligibility for full pensions after 20 years of service and coverage under Tricare, the Defense Department’s health care program. They’re also subject to the same obligations as regular members of the military, meaning they can be deployed to natural disasters or national security emergencies at a moment’s notice.

Dual Status Technicians are federal civilian employees who have to maintain their eligibility status in the Guard and abide by its standards, such as wearing military uniforms and respecting rank. But techs fall under a different section of U.S. law than active-duty personnel, and cannot be instantaneously deployed to Title 10 operations, the category of U.S. law covering the Armed Forces. Air Guard officers in Alaska say potentially having to switch tech employees over to Title 10 orders to fulfill national defense and emergency situations is unwieldy and administratively burdensome.

The impetus for the National Guard Bureau leveling units across the country is federal funding and fairness.

“This action is necessary to comply with the restrictions placed by Congress on AGR authorization. The President’s Budget the last 3 Years has included requested increases in AGR authorizations. However, all 3 (National Defense Authorization Acts) have limited our AGRs to 25,333,” Haley wrote.

To correct the imbalance, Guard units around the country with a lot of tech positions relative to AGRs will get more of the latter moving forward. And vice versa. Alaska, which has had an exceptionally high number of AGR positions within its Air National Guard, will see 80 of them converted to techs, and receive an additional eight techs on top of that under the revised Unit Manpower Document.

According to the Alaska National Guard, its 168th Wing based at Eielson Air Force Base will lose 26 AGR positions and gain 21 techs. And 54 AGRs in the 176th Wing at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson will be replaced by 67 tech positions.


No other state is slated to lose that many AGRs.

“Under this initiative, all (Air National Guard) units were equitably leveled with available resources. The (Alaska Air National Guard) actually gained 8 additional full time authorizations in this initiative,” Haley wrote.

The scale of these changes might seem inconsequential on the surface. Of the 1,361 full-time positions allotted to the Alaska National Guard, currently 835 are AGRs, compared to 273 tech positions. A private-sector analog might look like swapping 10% of full-time, salaried employees with contractors from a temp agency to come in and take over doing the same work.

The problem, according to Alaska officials, is that the kinds of jobs carried out by guardsmen in Alaska are significantly different from the work done in most Guard units around the country, and the tech position is poorly suited to carry most of it out.

“Our Alaska National Guard is not like … any Lower 48 National Guard,” said U.S. Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska. “Why is that? Because of the giantly important air defense mission that cannot be accomplished without our guard and reserve force. That’s a 24/7 mission. That’s not normal in any other part of the country.”

‘We’re gonna have bunch of people quit’

The Alaska Air Guard does several homeland defense and emergency response missions that commanders say require the kind of full-time, active-duty status personnel fulfilled by the AGR category — and are ill-suited for technicians.


Many of those missions require service members to be on alert 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, including having aerial refueling craft on the ready in case fighter jets are launched to intercept foreign aircraft approaching American airspace; keeping search and rescue crews constantly primed to deploy for military or civilian recoveries; and early warning ballistic missile monitoring at Clear Air Force Base.

“The bottom line is many of our missions cannot be accomplished in technician status,” said Brig. Gen. Brian Kile, assistant adjutant general in the Alaska Air National Guard. “Technicians are not capable of holding alert.”

Unlike, for example, a vehicle fleet mechanic or payroll administrator, positions assigned to alert status aren’t like the conventional 9-to-5 jobs that tend to be better matched by techs, Kile said.

What’s more, unlike an AGR, converting techs from civilian status to active-duty status adds paperwork and delays to missions where time is of the essence. Many of those missions involve not just constant around-the-clock staffing but also swiftly activating aircraft and the flight crews manning them to respond to potential threats, operations where Alaska Air Guard personnel work hand-in-glove with members of the Air Force.

“All the spy balloon stuff in the last year, the Bear bomber incursions, the shoot-downs, twice, when we went up and shot down these other unidentified objects … all of that involved Active (Duty) and Guard components,” Sullivan said.

And then there’s the issue of remuneration. One of the biggest problems, according to Alaska officials, is that techs are compensated less than AGRs and don’t get the same access to generous retirement plans, health insurance and additional benefits that come with active-duty military status.


Guard members who are currently AGRs will see significant pay cuts if they convert to techs, anywhere from $18,000 to $44,000 less in annual salary, though some say that doesn’t adequately reflect the full drop in compensation once health care costs, retention bonuses and tax breaks are accounted for.

Based on conversations with its members, the Alaska Air Guard anticipates 80% of the personnel who stand to be affected will separate from the Guard rather than convert. The unit doesn’t have the staffing to absorb those losses, and leaders predict it will have cascading effects that quickly erode their abilities to fulfill missions to the point of failure within a matter of months.

“We’re gonna have bunch of people quit,” Kile said. “When they quit, it’s hard to say how fast we’ll burn through stretching everybody else thin.”

In an internal document compiled by the Alaska National Guard on the leveling program’s potential impacts that was shared with the Anchorage Daily News, unit commanders forecast that by June of this year, they will reach “mission failure or degradation” in seven programs, including search and rescue, aerial refueling and ballistic missile defense, among others.

Even Alaskans with little or no connection to the military could experience the impacts. Members of the Air Guard are responsible for many of the most complicated search and rescue operations that happen dozens of times a year in the state, from extracting hunters off remote mountaintops to flying sick patients out of rural communities to medical care during storms.

[As more Alaskans are rescued from wilderness, this is what happens once you hit SOS]

The Air Guard in Alaska runs those search and rescue operations as a byproduct of maintaining alert status for its homeland defense mission. Essentially, people are already working around the clock in case an Air Force fighter jet needs to be refueled or a pilot goes down in the Alaska wilderness during a training exercise, so as long as they’re on shift, they employ many of those same skills and hardware in service to civilian rescues, treating them like training runs should they be asked to do the same thing by the Pentagon.

But if the Air Guard loses dozens of members all at once, Kile said, it will struggle to maintain bare-minimum staffing levels for its federal obligations, which take priority over its role in state as the rescuer of last resort.


“The normal number to hold a 24/7 mission position is 5-to-1. So now if you take away that, and I start doing it at 4-to-1, I’ll be able to manage for a short time, but someone gets sick, someone goes on leave, now I’m not able to manage it,” Kile said.

Even though on paper, the National Guard Bureau is planning to have a tech position available for every AGR it’s removing, it takes years to train up new hires and begin rebuilding capacity.

“Recruitment for these losses will take approximately 24-36 months to recover only 50% of the departing Airmen and years to regain the experience,” according to the memo filed by Alaska’s Department of Military and Veterans Affairs.

“I think by the summer, you could see an effect in the civil search and rescue,” Kile said. “Right when it gets busy.”

Conversion not ‘a viable alternative’ for many

Many in the Air Guard say they don’t want to separate, but cannot afford to convert over to techs.

In February, Sen. Murkowski met at JBER with 16 Air Guard AGRs for what was supposed to be a half-hour meeting about what effects the leveling program would have on operational readiness.

“What I heard instead was the human impact. And it just broke your heart to hear these stories,” Murkowski said.

The meeting stretched to two hours, and at points while sharing their stories, according to Murkowski, several members “were in tears.”

“There was not a single member in the group who said that was a viable alternative to them,” Murkowski said of the prospect of converting positions.

One guardsman in that position is Maj. Johnson in the 211th Rescue Squadron based at JBER. When he crunched the numbers on the yearly pay cut he’d take by converting, it came out to $89,000 to $96,000, not counting the annual retention bonus he’s paid as the military competes with commercial airlines and freight companies for pilots.

“I’m a sole income earner,” Johnson said of his family. “I have four kids.”

Then there are all the other benefits that would go away: the full pension he’s just a few years away from securing, and the access to Tricare, which he’d have to replace for his family with an expensive plan purchased on the marketplace if he were to become a technician in the Guard.

“The copays alone would crush me,” he said.

Most of the people Johnson had spoken with about the leveling program told him they’d separate instead of convert, potentially going over to jobs flying for airlines as soon as they can, where the pay is around double what they earn as AGRs in the National Guard.

Johnson, like many others in the Guard, is willing to take a lower salary than he’d earn in the private sector because the additional benefits and sense of purpose beneath the work make it balance out.

“In rescue, the ‘things we do, that others may live,’ it’s a passion for the mission, it’s helping brothers and sisters,” Johnson said, a reference to the motto for pararescuemen. “But everyone’s bottom line is, ‘If I can’t take care of my family, I can’t take care of the mission.’”

For its part, the National Guard Bureau said it was not aware the PEC Leveling changes would negatively affect national or state defense.

“Alaska leadership has full authority to move available resources to change affected positions to meet mission. The National Guard Bureau stands ready to assist and has received no analysis showing mission failure would result from this initiative,” Haley wrote.

Objections to the leveling directive aren’t limited to Alaska. Dozens of complaints about the initiative have been amassed on a subreddit devoted to Air National Guard issues, with many confused members sharing information about what to do or how to ameliorate some of the looming hardships.

All three members of Alaska’s congressional delegation say they’re tracking the proposed changes and want to see them modified or dropped. Murkowski said she’s trying to use persuasion to alter the policy, both in direct communication with military officials and possibly through the appropriations process.

Sullivan, too, thinks the National Defense Authorization Act is a vehicle for keeping more AGR positions secure, though he believes the Oct. 1 deadline makes it a difficult prospect when service members will be scrambling to make career decisions in the coming months. He’s also working on convening stakeholders from the various military and civilian entities that stand to be affected by the leveling directive for an assessment of the potential impacts to the homeland security mission, while pushing for either a delay or exemption for converting positions in Alaska’s National Guard.

• • •

Zachariah Hughes

Zachariah Hughes covers Anchorage government, the military, dog mushing, subsistence issues and general assignments for the Anchorage Daily News. He also helps produce the ADN's weekly politics podcast. Prior to joining the ADN, he worked in Alaska’s public radio network, and got his start in journalism at KNOM in Nome.