Springfield State Journal Register

April 20, 2002

Guard pilots defended as able 


WASHINGTON - The deadly "friendly fire" incident in Afghanistan involving a Springfield-based Air National Guard fighter has raised new questions about the heavy use of the part-time warriors in combat and whether they are adequately prepared for such challenges.

But active-duty officers, guard officials and independent defense analysts said Friday that the Air National Guard pilots are just as well trained and often more experienced than their active-duty counterparts.

"The pilots in the Air National Guard are trained to the same standards as the pilots in the active force," said Air Force Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and a veteran fighter pilot.

The incident Thursday involved an F-16 pilot from the 183rd Fighter Wing whose bombs killed four Canadian soldiers conducting a nighttime live-fire training exercise.

Charles Pena, a senior defense analyst with the Cato Institute, said the incident "raises some questions about what might be an appropriate mission for National Guard pilots versus active duty pilots, particularly in the environment where we do have lot of friendly coalition forces and we're not in active wartime
campaign footing."

"This is a much different environment than putting reserve forces into the fray of actual battle, which I think can be done rather well because there are more clear-cut lines of command," Pena said.

But other military officials and analysts disagreed.

Guard and reserve air crews have fought in every major U.S. military engagement from the Persian Gulf War to the present, are routinely part of the "no fly" patrols over Iraq and have flown more than 20,000 of the patrol missions over the United States since Sept. 11, the officials said.

And, contrary to the old "weekend warrior" image, the reserve component pilots are used on a regular basis by the military, said Kristin Patterson, a representative with the National Guard Association, a civilian support group.

More than 82,000 personnel from the National Guard and all the military reserves currently are on active duty under involuntarily call-ups for the war on terrorism. Thousands more are serving voluntarily.

Nearly all air guard and Air Force Reserve pilots come out of the active force and during their careers tend to fly more than active-duty pilots, said Reggie Saville, a spokesman for the National Guard Bureau in the Pentagon.

"The 'weekend warrior' tag makes my skin crawl," Saville said.

Saville said he had just talked to a pilot from a South Carolina Air Guard unit who has 3,500 hours of fighter pilot experience, which is a lot of time in the air for fighters. The pilot said that was a typical level of experience in his unit, he added.

Many guard and reserve pilots have gained thousands of additional hours flying commercial airlines in their civilian jobs, he added.

"There is absolutely no question that air guard pilots are every bit, if not more, qualified in most area of flight than the regular Air Force," said Jay Farrar, a former Marine officer who said he has worked with the air guard a number of times.

"They fly many more hours in their aircraft or other aircraft than active-duty pilots do," Farrar, an official with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, added.

Guard and reserve fliers often accumulate more hours in their military aircraft than regular service pilots because they do not have to rotate through the schools and ground assignments as active duty officers do, Farrar and the guard officials said.

As a result, Farrar noted, the guard and reserve pilots "tend to win most of the competitions" against the active fliers at the major air combat exercises, such as Gunsmoke and William Tell.

"Our guys are definitely competitive," Saville agreed.