WASHINGTON (AP) — The head of the Air National Guard, a former fighter pilot, is poised to become the first four-star general to head the National Guard.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Wednesday that he has recommended that Lt. Gen. Craig McKinley take the helm of the National Guard, a post that Congress has elevated to a four-star rank.

McKinley would replace Lt. Gen. H. Steven Blum, who has served as chief for five years, and was considered one of the top candidates to get the promotion. Instead, Gates said he has recommended that Blum be named the first Guard deputy commander of U.S. Northern Command.

Gates said McKinley is well-qualified for the historic new post, noting he has held command positions at every level of the Air Force during his 34 years of military service.

The changes come in the wake of a report in 2007 by the Commission on the National Guard and Reserves that concluded that 88 percent of Army National Guard units were not prepared for combat. The panel also found that the Guard and Reserves don't get enough money or equipment, and are left out of important planning for national emergencies.

The findings echoed persistent complaints from Blum, who repeatedly urged Congress to boost support for the Guard and give its leader a seat at the table with top military leaders as they made decisions.

"The elevation of the National Guard chief to four stars recognizes the enhanced importance of the Guard to America's overall national defense," Gates told Pentagon reporters. "In recent years, facilitated by Gen. Blum's strong leadership, the National Guard has transformed from an often-neglected strategic reserve to a force that is an indispensable component of the operational military."

Blum's proposed move to U.S. Northern Command addresses findings by the commission that there is a lack of communication between reserve officials and other military leaders, including the Homeland Security Department and U.S. Northern Command, which is responsible for the military's defense of the U.S. homeland.

To correct that, the panel recommended that either the commander or deputy commander of Northern Command be a Guard officer.

McKinley currently is responsible for the more than 106,800 Guard members throughout the United States and territories. He is a pilot with more than 4,000 hours in the air, including as an instructor and a wing commander.

Prior to becoming director in May 2006, he served as an assistant deputy chief of staff for the Air Force.

The nominations have been sent to President Bush, and also must be confirmed by the Senate.