Air Guard director nominee enters budget buzzsaw

White House nominates Lt. Gen. Stanley Clarke III to take reins of Air Guard as the budget battle continues between the Guard and Air Force senior leadership.

President Obama has nominated Lt. Gen. Stanley E. Clarke III as the next Air Guard director to take over for Lt. Gen.  Lt. Gen. Harry Wyatt, who is scheduled to retire in January.

Wyatt has had a front row seat to the battle between the active duty and Air Guard this past year after the Air Force issued its proposal for the 2013 defense budget that included sweeping cuts to the Guard. The Air Force proposed cutting a significantly higher proportion of Guard force structure and personnel in order to save the active duty from the budget shears.

Wyatt found himself in a difficult position throughout this debate. While he is the leader of the Guard, the Air Force chief of staff is still his boss. He sat behind former Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz and Air Force Secretary Michael Donley during the contentious budget hearings on the Hill. Wyatt also had to answer to the Council of Governors and the adjutant generals outraged with the Air Force leadership for gutting the Guard after a decade in which the service has leaned on its reserve force to maintain operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Congress struck down the proposed Guard cuts, but the budget battle continues as the Air Force tries to figure out how to balance the cuts ordered by the president. If Congress fails to avoid sequestration at the end of the year, the budget knives will get sharper and the debate stronger over where the Air Force can afford to cut.

Enter Clarke, the commander of the North American Aerospace Defense Command Region-1st Air Force, who will take the reins of the Guard from Wyatt. A command pilot with 31 years served to include a tour as the defense attaché for the Office of Defense Cooperation Turkey in Ankara, leading the Guard in these fiscal times is sure to be his largest challenge to date.

Plenty of questions remain for the Guard. The service had planned to cut 5,100 airmen from the Guard while only cutting 3,900 from active duty. Congress ripped service leadership for those cuts while also criticizing the Air Force’s decision to retire Guard aircraft and shut down Guard units to protect the active duty.

The fate of those cuts has not been settled since the cuts to the Air Force’s budget remain on the books and Air Force leaders have not backed down from their stance that the proposals they made in the 2013 defense budget remain the service’s best option. In many ways, the debate has been put on hold until the Pentagon knows for sure in January if it will sustain the $500 billion in sequestration cuts over the next decade.

As long as Clarke’s nomination is approved by Congress, he could be taking over right when the Air Force budget debate ramps back up. Of course, the hearings for his nomination will turn into a soap box for every Senator who stands to lose an Air Guard unit from their state to rip the Air Force again for the 2013 budget proposal. So there is the potential that a Senator will block the nomination as a political vehicle to grab attention for their respective unit.

Clarke will have to serve as a conduit between the Air Force senior leadership and the Guard lobbying arms to find a negotiated peace to avoid the consternation seen on Capitol Hill this past year. The battle between the Guard and active duty could serve as a severe disadvantage for the service at a time when the Air Force, Army, Navy and Marine Corps will be at each other’s throats to protect their piece of the budget pie.

Plenty of major Air Force modernization programs sit on the horizon to include the long range bomber program. Early indications are that the White House wants to protect the long range bomber as part of their new defense strategy, but early decisions in funding will have serious ramifications in its development over the next decade. A divide in the Air Force family does not necessarily put these programs at risk, but it doesn’t help at such a critical time.