BY MAUREEN N. MARATITA
It’s no secret that the Guam National Guard will establish a Space Squadron.
Gov. Lourdes A. Leon Guerrero mentioned it during her State of the Island Address on March 8 and Maj. General Esther J.C. Aguigui, adjutant general of the Guam Guard; had mentioned it during her confirmation hearing in April 2019.
But that’s just one of Aguigui’s plans.
“We are definitely growing and we are excited about our growth,” she said.
The 254th Space Control Squadron will be established later this year, which will be one of eight in the nation, chosen because of Guam’s location. “We have a lot of eyes on us. Guam is Indo-PACOM’s number one priority,” she said.
As to the Space Squadron progress, Aguigui said, “We have started the preliminary efforts to start recruiting — that will open up 60 additional jobs … high tech jobs such as cyber and space operations. It’s very exciting — what I’m excited about is we don’t have a shortage of people who qualify — who can go into those jobs,” she said. There was some concern that Guam could not meet Air Force Officers Qualification Test scores, but she said, “For the Air National Guard, we have been number one in recruiting for at least a decade.”
To launch the squadron will mean additional funding. “I can tell you just to get the Space command station up and running is a budget of $2.1 million, for the basing … just to do all the environmental surveys, the military construction projected to start the facility on its way.” That is not inclusive of personnel or logistics costs, she said. “That figure is not known at this time.”
For the physical location, Aguigui said, “We have the property. Andersen Air Force Base has graciously given a piece of real property we can build on.” That property will be located adjacent to the Air Guard at the base, she said. The Space Squadron has drawn national attention, she said. “There’s a lot of interest in the Space Command.”
In addition, Aguigui said, “We are working with the office of the Secretary of Defense to see if we can stand up a Space National Guard.” Guam’s connection to space security has existed through the Guam Tracking Station since 1965 and what is now Detachment 2 of the 21st Space Operations Squadron at Andersen Air Force Base. According to the Air Force, the tracking station provides “assured access to space as well as real-time command and control for launch and operation of 170 Department of Defense national, allied and civilian satellites.”
Aguigui is revisiting the Guard’s five-year plan, she said, which will dovetail with Indo-PACOM aims.
“We would like the return of a signals company — a signals capability. That would definitely augment our Space Command and give us that additional capability for communications,” she said. The Guard had a signals capability, which it lost about four years ago in a realignment. “We would also like to see a military police company … which would augment our military infantry company.”
Aside from its role during typhoon responses, during the pandemic the Guard has undertaken tasks at the A.B. Won Pat International Airport, Guam; at isolation hotels; constructing alternate care facilities and more. “We were out controlling traffic, controlling crowds,” Aguigui said. “A military police company — that would be what they have to do anyway.”
Two UH-72A Lakota helicopters have been part of the Guard’s assets since 2015, to use for medivac needs. “We’ve done more search and rescue missions thank we have medivac,” Aguigui said. The Guard is considering having a medivac and search and rescue mission, she said. “It would benefit the community so much better any time the Guam Fire Department needs some help in trying to find a lost hiker and we can’t get HC-5 up at Andersen to help.” The helicopters have range and can reach the Northern Mariana Islands, although fueling is an issue. “We have to be very deliberate in our trips to Saipan and back,” Aguigui said.
The Guam Guard Readiness complex sits on 51 developed acres of 78 acres of federal land in Barrigada, which it received from the U.S. Navy. “We have 27 acres that includes our … aviation unit, our combined Surface Maintenance Facility — it’s where all our big vehicles get repaired and re-tanked,” Aguigui said. “We would like to get 42 more acres, because we need to expand. We’re growing; we need to build more readiness centers for our infantry battalion, we need to build a readiness center for our engineers, our aviation unit, our medical detachment.” Aguigui said the Guard has expanded. “But we left out that we need to expand our technology and so we also need to include a communications center.”
The land surrounding the Guard’s complex is Department of Defense property, Aguigui said. “Everything going North from here to Commercial Tire Depot — that is pretty much all Department of the Navy Land.” DoD land also extends to Radio Barrigada and beyond that. “It’s a big piece of land,” she said.
As well as construction, that would also likely mean an increase in personnel, she said.
“But as it stands now, we don’t have enough readiness centers to house all of our soldiers. … They’re sharing space with other units, so when we can build each unit their own readiness center then all the soldiers will be adequately housed in their own facilities.”
The Guam Army Guard has “a larger footprint,” Aguigui said. The Guam Air Guard is headquartered at Andersen. “A very small number of fulltime Air Guard personnel are working here,” she said of the joint headquarters in Barrigada. The Army infantry battalion has five companies, broken down into detachments. Many of the skills are transferrable to the private sector and can accrue college credits.
The increase in personnel would mean recruitment.
The Guam Guard has about 1,500 personnel, of which about 130 are full-time.
“Recruiting is always a challenge, but we always meet our numbers,” Aguigui said. “We do have a challenge with retention as well,” she said. During the pandemic, the Guard has not been able to recruit in local schools. According to Journal files, prior to the pandemic, the Guard’s unemployment rate of personnel was 32%, which included a 4% student population. In September 2020, most recruits came from the unemployed population, according to the Guam Army Command recruitment.
Since then, while Aguigui said she has not seen a spike in unemployed Guard members and the part-time Guard members that form the bulk of the Guard have been fully utilized. “The employment opportunities for military members that was brought up by the pandemic — there was a huge spike. We have not seen as many part-time soldiers on fulltime employment than we have during this pandemic response.”
About 30 Guard members returned from a Washington, D.C. deployment in March, and a number are deployed in South West Asia. About 70 personnel are deployed to North West Field at Andersen to guard the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system. The Guard has had personnel there since August 2020.
And if — quite likely when — the Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense System is deployed to Guam, Aguigi said the Guard will also take on duties associated with the system’s deployment. “We’d be delighted to take on a role such as that,” Aguigui said.
“We save the federal government a lot of money by taking on the THAAD mission,” she said, while recognizing that such Title 10 orders also save the Guard budget items. “However, the amount of money that it takes to deploy people who are not from Guam — that’s also a significant cost,” she said. Whether local or otherwise, the cost of deployments during the pandemic have been a federal expense. From March to December, Aguigui said, “We saved $9 million [that] we’ve added to Guam’s economy.”
While the Guard has several deployments, for many of the island’s residents its most visible presence has been at the University of Guam Field House COVID vaccination center. After the chaotic start of Guam’s vaccination program at Okkodo High School that had older residents waiting for hours, the Guard’s smooth handling of hundreds per day has been widely acclaimed.
Aguigi said the Guard’s performance is typical. “What you see at the University of Guam is what we’re made for; we deal with mass every single day, so an operation like this is not difficult for us to do well.” Aguigui said the Guard’s organization of the vaccination program at UOG and elsewhere comes from good order and discipline. “There’s a procedure and a way to do everything,” she says. “What makes it so easy is the soldiers and airmen love what they’re doing. I believe a mission such as this in their home with the people that they work and live and play with, adds that much more flare and that much more joy to the mission that they’re performing.” mbj