An official website of the United States government
Here's how you know
A .mil website belongs to an official U.S. Department of Defense organization in the United States.
A lock (lock ) or https:// means you’ve safely connected to the .mil website. Share sensitive information only on official, secure websites.

The Fight to Get to the Fight: ANG Deputy Director on the Fighter Shortage, Homeland Defense

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. Sarah M. McClanahan
  • Air National Guard

During the final senior leader panel of the 2023 Air & Space Forces Association Air, Space & Cyber Conference, U.S. Air Force Maj. Gen. Duke A. Pirak, deputy director, Air National Guard, discussed the shortfall of fighter aircraft across the total force and its impact on the ANG’s role in homeland defense.

The ANG provides 94% of homeland air defense capabilities with just 27% of the total force’s fighter fleet and is on pace to perform nearly 50% of the USAF’s global taskings this fiscal year, said Pirak in the panel alongside Lt. Gen. Steven S. Nordhaus, commander, Continental U.S. North American Aerospace Defense Command Region – 1st Air Force (U.S. Air Forces Northern and U.S. Air Forces Space).

“We do that for pennies on the dollar compared to an active force,” said Pirak. “That's not to say one is better than the other, that's just to advertise what we believe to be a tremendous value proposition of the Air National Guard fighter force structure. Just so happens that the Air Force is facing a fighter recapitalization crisis and it's very acute in the Air National Guard where traditionally we have the majority of the legacy fighters.”

During the panel, Holmes set the stage for the scope of the USAF’s fighter shortfall.

“In 1991, when we went to execute Desert Storm, your Air Force and Air National Guard team had 134 fighter squadrons spread out all around the world,” said Retired Gen. James M. Holmes, panel moderator and the former commander of Air Combat Command. “The average fighter pilot flew 22.3 flying hours a month and the average age of the fighter fleet was 9.7 years … by the time of the attacks on September 11, 2001, we were down to 88 fighter squadrons, 19 flying hours a month and our average age is up to almost 15 years for the aircraft.”

Presently, the USAF has only 57 fighter squadrons, with an average of 6.8 pilot flying hours a month, and an average aircraft age of nearly 30 years across the fighter fleet. Twenty five of the total force’s fighter squadrons reside in the ANG. Of those, 16 operate legacy fighter aircraft at risk for divestment and only six squadrons are either operating fifth-generation fighter aircraft or have new fighters formally allocated.

“We have 25 fighter squadrons when we talk both operational and training squadrons and we need 25 fighter squadrons in the future of the Air National Guard,” said Lt. Gen. Michael A. Loh, director, ANG, during a media event earlier in the conference. “The ones that are concerning now are the ones still flying legacies … so what we continue to insist upon is a long-term plan for the recapitalization of those. The Secretary of the Air Force has made it very clear, if you're in fighters today, we'll do everything we can to keep you in fighters.”

Although identical to regular Air Force counterparts in terms of readiness and training, ANG pilots and maintainers are deeply embedded in their communities and have long-standing career connections in their local areas that are not as transferable.

“If you stand down a Guard unit that's been at this business for a while, with all the experience and capability, unlike the active duty Air Force, it’s very difficult to build that backup,” said Pirak. “So we have this discussion not at the expense of anybody else. But, we want that rising tide to lift everybody there. It just so happens that the near rocks are those [units without a recapitalization plan], and I do worry about the nation's capacity to protect America if those units dry up in the near future.”

The Air Force Generation model, Agile Combat Employment, and Multi-capable Airmen concepts are total force initiatives that are applicable to the execution of homeland defense, explained Nordhaus.

“We know the homeland is not a sanctuary, we're being attacked daily in the cyberspace and in the information space … Those things are all relevant in the homeland and we have to think about that because we need resilient basing, we need hardening so that no matter what our adversary might try to do, we're able to be agile, and that we can do combat employment and make sure that we retain the force and then can power project in a contested environment,” said Nordhaus.

Both panelists echoed the sense of urgency to accelerate change to ensure the total force can execute its homeland defense mission while remaining ahead of near-peer threats.

“There is a fight to get to the fight,” said Pirak. “That fight actually starts here where we sit. So all of the concepts we're talking about operationally, with ACE and MCA, are all going to be applicable things to generate air power to protect the homeland, which is not just an emotional assertion. It's a policy imperative, and then we can get to the fight.”