MCENTIRE JOINT NATIONAL GUARD BASE, S.C. --
When I entered Texas A&M as a freshman cadet in 1988, the U.S. Air Force fighter force was at its peak. At that time, there were about 4,200 fighters in the inventory split between the Regular Air Force, Reserves and Air National Guard. During my freshman year, the Berlin Wall came down and by 1991 the Cold War had ended. A year later, OPERATION DESERT STORM kicked off; the United States Air Force, Navy and our coalition partners decimated the Iraqi army and air force. Air National Guard F-16s flew 3,645 missions over Iraq. The Gulf War was over, Russia was “friendly”, and we could finally realize the “Peace Dividend.” Our leaders decided that America didn’t need the robust cold war force we had anymore.
I was commissioned in 1993. At that time, the Air Force was well on its way to downsizing. We shed close to 1,000 fighters during the time I spent in college. The Air Force had 444,000 personnel with an additional 117,000 in the Air National Guard. During the 90’s, the Air Force established a permanent presence downrange which has been going on, in some form, ever since. Operations PROVIDE COMFORT/NORTHERN WATCH/SOUTHERN WATCH began in earnest. OPERATION NORTHERN WATCH (Incirlik AB, Turkey) and OPERATION SOUTHERN WATCH (Saudi Arabia) became regular but manageable deployments. The requirements were small and the force structure was adequate; we weren’t burning out as an Air Force.
September 11th, 2001 changed everything. One month later, OPERATION ENDURING FREEDOM began in Afghanistan. By 2003, OPERATION IRAQI FREEDOM kicked off and the USAF was committed to multiple combat deployments within U.S. Central Command. The Air Force had also managed to shed another 500 fighters during the previous ten years ending up with around 2,500 split between components. Increased taskings with fewer squadrons meant the Air Force became increasingly reliant on Air National Guard squadrons to deploy more frequently and for longer durations.
In May 2011, I was assigned to McEntire Joint National Guard Base and deployed to Afghanistan for OPERATION ENDURING FREEDOM. Ten more years had passed and the Air Force had reduced another 500 fighter aircraft. The Air Force started placing pilot and maintenance personnel within Air National Guard units under the Total Force Initiative to allow guard units to deploy for an entire 120-day Air Expeditionary Force rotation by themselves. Over the next few years, this TFI construct quickly changed to provide a source of seasoning for active duty pilots and maintainers.
Now, in May of 2018, it is 25 years since I started in the Air Force; there are 120,000 fewer personnel in the regular Air Force and about 11,000 fewer guardsmen. Our fighter force has decreased by nearly 40 percent. We are still heavily involved in combat operations in Southwest Asia and Theater Support Packages to both U.S. European Command and U.S. Pacific Command. With the demise of ISIS, increasingly active Iranian-backed militia groups are beginning to take hold in Iraq. We have a resurgent Russia that is actively acting against us. They have invaded Ukraine, annexed Crimea. States of the former Soviet Union are now, once again, the fault line between NATO and an increasingly aggressive Russia is seeking to exert influence over its former territories. In the Pacific, North Korea has developed the capability to use nuclear weapons and is developing the capability to pair them with intercontinental ballistic missiles that post a threat to the U.S. and our allies. Lastly, China, has experienced rapid economic growth, is seeking to control access to the shipping lanes of the entire South China Sea and exert its dominance over the region.
The world has become a more dangerous place over the last 25 years. When I started my career, the Air National Guard was the reserve force; “break glass in case of emergency.” Force reductions and world events have occurred to make all of us at McEntire an integral piece in the National Security Strategy of the U.S. The mission of the Air Force cannot be done without Reserve Component forces. Now, more than ever in the history of the Air National Guard, each of you must be trained, equipped and ready to execute your combat mission.