Even by Alaska standards, September 12, 2023, was a big day.

“We had four missions in that day in all four corners of Alaska,” said Col. John Romspert, the director of staff for the Alaska Air National Guard.

In a span of 12 hours, Alaska ANG rescue teams responded to two plane crashes on opposite sides of the state, three lost hunters on a remote river, and a medical emergency in an arctic village. Crews from the 210th, 211th, and 212th rescue squadrons launched two HH-60 helicopters and two HC-130J tankers, each with two-man pararescue teams on board. In all, close to 20 Guard aviators flew for almost 24 hours on the missions. Maintenance crews came in early and stayed late to get the aircraft off the ground.

It was the kind of rare, full-throttle rescue day that Brig. Gen. Brian Kile has seen from almost every angle. In his 34-years in the Alaska ANG, he has served as an enlisted loadmaster on HC-130 rescue tankers, then as a pilot of the Guard’s HH-60 rescue helicopters for almost 20 years before becoming the guard’s commanding officer in early 2023.

But under a new manpower plan that will cover the state Guards in all 50 states and 4 territories, Kile told Task & Purpose, he fears he may be the commander who has to oversee the Alaska ANG failing to live up to its commitments.

Though best known for its backcountry civilian rescues, the Alaska ANG’s 2,400 members maintain four separate 24/7 air defense missions under U.S. Northern Command.

An Alaska ANG analysis reviewed by Task & Purpose projects that the reductions — even if replacements are found — would cause the Alaska ANG to fall short as much as 50% across four key 24/7 alert missions that Guardsman currently fill: two alerts of specially trained radar operators that scan the air and space of Alaska’s borders for NORAD; and two flying missing — search and rescue and air-to-air refueling.

The hardest hit would be the Alaska ANG’s KC-135 tanker fleet, Kile said. “You’re talking about a 40 to 45 percent reduction in our ability to fly missions.” For the NORAD radar monitoring missions, he said, ”you look at how many people it takes to go on the floor and what we can provide is about, five days a week, 16 hours a day in coverage.” And the rescue teams, he said, might only have alert crews available during working days.

“I can’t say rescue is going to fail. I can’t say the NORAD mission is going to fail. I can say that our ability to provide forces to those missions is going to be at a loss of about this percentage,” Kile said.

Brig. Gen. Tracy Smith, assistant adjutant general-Air and commander of the Alaska Air National Guard, Col. Brian Kile, Director of Joint Staff, Alaska National Guard and Chief Master Sgt. Kim Groat, Alaska Air National Guard’s state command chief visit the 168th Wing deployers and maintenance group to hear from the Airmen. Smith, Kile, and Groat take a moment for a photo near the 168th Wing KC-135 Stratotanker and Polar Bear Tail. The 168th is the premier Arctic Wing providing rapid global reach and vigilance capabilities through air refueling, aeromedical evacuation, missile warning, and space domain awareness. The 168th Wing maintains a 24/7 air defense constant watch and commitment for North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD). (U.S. Air National Guard photo by Senior Master Sgt. Julie Avey)
Brig. Gen. Tracy Smith, then-Col. Brian Kile and Chief Master Sgt. Kim Groat at Eielson Air Force Base, where the Alaska Air National Guard’s 168th Wing maintains a 24/7 KC-135 refueling alert for NORAD-assigned Air Soverienty missions. Photo by Senior Master Sgt. Julie Avey. 

The manpower plan developed by the National Guard Bureau — dubbed Program Element Code Leveling, or PEC Leveling — would cut 80 full-time active positions from the Alaska ANG by October. The losses would include close to a dozen pilots, three pararescuemen, and close to 20 of the “scope watchers” that man NORAD early warning facilities, plus maintainers who support all four missions. The Alaska ANG would replace those roles with 88 “Dual Status Technicians” — a quasi-civilian position that, Kile said, is not workable to fill the 100+ spots on the Guard’s 24/7 alert rosters.

Officials with the National Guard Bureau confirmed to Task & Purpose that the Alaska ANG is set to lose 80 active slots while gaining 88 Dual Status Technician positions.

National Guard Bureau officials disputed that the change in manpower would necessarily reduce readiness.

“State leadership has full authority to align/re-align its resources to meet assigned missions,” a National Guard Bureau official told Task & Purpose in email responses to questions on Alaska manning. “[The Alaska ANG] gained eight funded full-time resources.”

There we no plans, the official, to change the mission requirements for Alaska.

“The full-time leveling initiative does not change current Active Duty or Air National Guard mission assignments,” the official said. “This is a realignment of resource type and funding only.”

Spreading jobs ‘like peanut butter’

At the heart of PEC Leveling is a plan to more evenly distribute what kind of jobs Guardsmen hold in every state.

Full time jobs in the National Guard are known as Active Guard Reserve, or “AGR” positions. The careers and daily lives of AGR guardsmen are generally indistinguishable from active duty military. AGR guardsmen usually work full-time on a military base; train, deploy, and get promoted on the same paths as active duty; and collect salaries and benefits — including healthcare, retirement, and education — largely identical to active duty soldiers and airmen, though some differences exist state to state.

Under a cap controlled by Congress, all 54 states and territories must split up a maximum of 25,333 AGR jobs across the country. Which states get those AGR spots is at the heart of PEC Leveling.

“For the last three years, we’ve asked Congress to raise this cap,” said Romspert, the Alaska staff director and a former pararescueman. “It hasn’t happened. So they said, ‘We’re just going to peanut butter-spread resources across all 54.’ They didn’t take into account the missions.”

Alaska Air National Guard pararescuemen assigned to the 212th Rescue Squadron, Alaska Air National Guard, conduct a freefall jump out of a of a C-17 Globemaster III assigned to the 144th Airlift Squadron, over the Pacific Ocean near Homer, Alaska, March 3, Air Force photo by Senior Airman Emily Farnsworth.
Alaska Air National Guard pararescuemen assigned to the 212th Rescue Squadron, Alaska Air National Guard, conduct a freefall jump out of a of a C-17 Globemaster III assigned to the 144th Airlift Squadron, over the Pacific Ocean near Homer, Alaska, March 3, Air Force photo by Senior Airman Emily Farnsworth.

Under the plan, 80 of Alaska’s AGR spots will go to other states while the Alaska ANG gains 88 of the part-military, part-civilian Dual Status Technician positions.

Airmen who work as technicians perform military duties, hold rank, and wear uniforms at work. But technicians are paid on a Government Services payscale and subject to unionized working rules, including limited working hours. Technicians are generally not enrolled in regular military healthcare, retirement or education benefits.

“And, ‘oh by the way,’ it’s voluntary,” Kile said. “So when I ask somebody, a technician, if they are willing to fly a mission or or watch the scope, they can tell me no.”

According to an Alaska ANG analysis, an AGR pilot who switches to a technician job would face a $75,000 annual pay cut, counting benefits. Enlisted spots in roles like logistics and finance would see pay cuts from $10,000 among junior troops to $40,000 for senior NCOs.

“These members have been clear they will seperate/seek other employment as early as April,” an Alaska ANG memo said.

Four NORAD Missions

“The Air National Guard has always been considered a strategic reserve, right?,” Kile told Task & Purpose. “We’ve always been looked at as this ‘break glass in case of emergency’ force. Over the 20 years or so, we have actually become less of a strategic reserve and more of an operational force, specifically in Alaska.”

The Guard has two wings, the 168th at Eielson Air Force Base near Fairbanks and the 176th at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson near Anchorage. The wings staff four distinct missions assigned by US Northern Command, all of which are major lynchpins in the Pentagon’s defense of U.S. soil on the Pacific rim.

Crews and airmen with the Alaska ANG hold four 24/7 alerts across the state:

Alaska NORAD.

  • Space Early Warning: Clear Space Force Station, located halfway between Anchorage and Fairbanks, is a nerve center for a network of powerful long-range radars that monitor much of eastern Russia and North Korea as part of the Pentagon’s Ballistic Missile Early Warning System. The 168th Wing’s 213th Space Warning Squadron mans a 24-hour, 12-man alert of “scope watchers” at the station, with crews living at Clear for four days during an alert cycle. About 41 Guard personnel cover the shifts, plus 60 security forces personnel. The extended hours, remote location, and high priority of the mission, Kile said, makes the job wholly unsuitable for technicians. The PEC Leveling plan would convert 4 of the 13 AGR officers that man the station to technicians.
  • Region Air Operations Center: Analysts with the Guard’s 176th Air Defense Squadron man a radar hub just outside Anchorage. While Clear watches space, the RAOC watches airspace. The 24/7 center dispatches fighter jets to intercept unknown aircraft across the northern Pacific. Under PEC Leveling, the 176th would lose 11 AGR slots for 10 technicians, who would face the same hurdles to holding alert as the space watchers at Clear. 
Air Force photo
A member of the Alaska ANG’s 176th Air Defense Squadron on duty at the Region Air Operations Center in Anchorage. Video capture by Airman 1st Class Julia Lebens

Air Sovereignty

When the RAOC crews spot an unknown plane — often a Russian bomber on a reconnaissance mission, probing for a U.S. response — they launch fighter jets which sit on a 24/7 alert known as the Airspace Control Alert flown by active duty pilots. To support them, Alaska ANG crews hold two alerts:

  • Refueling: The Guard’s 168th Operations Group maintains a 24/7 alert with KC-135 tankers at Eielson. On seven-day rotations, three crews — two pilots and a boom operator in each — live in alert facilities for quick launches. In winter months, maintenance crews are larger than normal due to the cold, Kile said. “If crews don’t preheat the tanker and a pilot steps on the ladder to climb up, it’ll crack the co-pilot window. So the maintenance footprint is probably three times what it is at, say, Kansas,” Kile said. “There’s not another unit that can come up and operate in minus-40.”
  • Rescue: Should the Air Sovereignty fighters, Eielson’s tankers or even an intruder end up crashing, the 176th Wing’s rescue squadrons would respond. The 176th keeps an HC-130J, an HH-60 helicopter and two pararescue teams on 24/7 alert. Though the 176th’s search and rescue units responded 159 times in 2023 to civilians lost or hurt in the Alaskan backcountry, those rescues are, on paper, a side-benefit to the unit’s core NORAD alert mission. PEC leveling would convert three PJs and a handful of aircrew to technicians. With the reduced manning in aircrews, Alaska ANG officials estimate the rescue alert might drop to workdays-only, at 18 days per month, 9 hours per day.

According to Kile, technician positions are well suited for many jobs across the Guard, from admin spots to many technical roles like maintenance and life support, medical techs or parachute riggers. But to cover any of the Guard’s four 24-hour alert missions as a pilot, aircrew, pararescuemen or NORAD “scope watcher,” Kile says an airman needs to either be an AGR, or on special one-off activation orders — a paperwork nightmare that changes how airmen are paid, how they accrue retirement and their healthcare.

“The value AGRs give us to function in these mission sets, all four of them, its agile, and it’s responsive to the needs of the mission. They don’t change status, they don’t change benefits, and it is quick and responsive,” Kile said. “Moving a technician to active status is cumbersome.”

Technicians, Kile noted, are not the same as a part-time, or “traditional,” Guardsman, who hold civilian jobs and report for monthly “drill” duty and annual training. Alaskan alert units have been able to activate traditional guard members for alert duty for decades, Kile said, because their pay and benefits follow the AGR system. Technicians, however, must be moved in and out of civilian pay status, with different, often incompatible rules. PEC Leveling is not anticipated to impact Alaska’s Traditional positions.

“I think some of this is coming from Air National Guard leadership,” Kile said. “They’re not interested in us doing [active alert] Title 10 missions anymore and would like to see us back to more of a strategic reserve and less of an operational force.”

Four missions to four corners

The four missions on September 12 were each typical for Alaska: three stranded hunters stuck on a cold, remote river; a critically ill patient in need of a medivac from a village so far above the Arctic Circle that polar bears occasionally wander the town; and two small planes that crashed 500 miles apart.

Across all four missions, the Guard arrived too late to save just one man. Eugene Peltola Jr, the husband of Alaska congresswoman Mary Peltola, passed away at the site of a plane crash near St. Mary’s, 400 miles from Anchorage, before rescuers arrived.

Days like September 12 come along at least once a year for the Alaska ANG. There might be multiple missions in day, or a huge all-hands rescue like the 2006 Cougar Ace in which the Alaska ANG and Coast Guard sent five aircraft and over a dozen PJs to a massive cargo ship that rolled over at sea.

The next time one hits, Kile said, he has faith the Alaska ANG crews will still respond.

“If I make a call to the, to the 212th, to the 211th, the 210th, people don’t care what status they’re in, they don’t care what’s going on. Someone’s life is in danger, they’re gonna do everything they can to launch,” Kil said. “So its hard to give you a number [of readiness loss] because of the professionalism of our rescue force. But there’s going to be a degradation because there has to be.”

The latest on Task & Purpose