Friday, May 07, 2010
Uncertain future for National Guard
By: Jen DiMascio May 6, 2010 04:46 AM EDT Once a home for weekend warriors, the National Guard is now in high demand. About 66,000 members of the Guard are deployed overseas, and the administration this week approved sending 6,000 guardsmen to the Gulf Coast to help with the oil spill. Guardsmen are already in Tennessee to help with flooding and in Boston to assist in water purification, and politicians are clamoring for the Guard’s presence along the country’s Southwest border. Since World War II, “we’ve probably never been more ready or able to meet the challenges of our state mission or our federal mission,” Gen. Craig McKinley, chief of the National Guard Bureau, told reporters at a Defense Writers Group breakfast this week. It’s a remarkable turnaround for the Guard. In 2006, Congress and the National Governors Association rose up to protest the Pentagon’s planned equipment cuts for the Guard, which, because of chronic underinvestment and repeated deployments to Iraq, was struggling to meet its missions at home. At that time, the Guard’s stateside readiness rates were in the 40 percent range, McKinley said. Today, he said, they’ve climbed to more than 75 percent. And while the Army National Guard is hitting an apex perhaps never before seen in its history, the future remains uncertain. If the U.S. begins to withdraw from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan at a time of rising deficits, the military may feel pressure to reduce the size of the Guard. The coming years are even more hazy for the Air National Guard as the Air Force begins to limit its reliance on manned aircraft. McKinley sees an opportunity for the Army Guard to continue to deploy thousands of soldiers abroad — if its force of 358,000 soldiers is maintained. But as the nation draws down its presence in Iraq and Afghanistan, there may be pressure to bring down the size of the Guard, he said. “Can we afford to sustain it at these levels? Can we keep people fully trained and equipped if they’re not being used in a rotational model?” McKinley asked. Retired Maj. Gen. Gus Hargett, president of the National Guard Association of the United States, thinks the Guard should maintain its size or even expand while the size of the active-duty Army is reduced — a more economical alternative, he contends. “It’s a debate that’s good for the country,” Hargett said. “We should decide what we want to invest in.” Capitol Hill advocates for the Guard, such as Missouri Republican Sen. Kit Bond, agree. “They cost only 7 percent of what an active-duty [service] costs,” Bond said, adding that the Guard historically loses out in the military’s budget fights. “The Pentagon is active-duty-centric.” He and Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), who lead the National Guard Caucus and are members of the Senate Appropriations Defense Subcommittee, have worked during the past few years to reverse perennial Guard shortages and to elevate the chief of the National Guard Bureau, previously a three-star general, to a four-star general who is able to meet with other military leaders on budget matters. The other argument for a strong Guard, advocates say, is its unique dual mission: helping the active-duty military in foreign battles and serving the nation’s governors in disasters at home. “I think there’s a sweet spot here — there’s a point in here, in an asymmetric century, you’re going to need a force here at home that can rapidly respond to events,” McKinley said. In the past 8½ years, the Guard has been on more missions in more places than in any other time in its history, said John Goheen, an NGAUS spokesman, adding that the Guard is still serving on missions that are largely forgotten. They’re deployed on the Sinai Peninsula and in Kosovo. They’re helping to teach foreign countries how to build their own guard units in Asia and Africa. “And think about how inexpensively they do it; it’s pretty astounding,” Goheen said. Governors also turn to the Guard in times of crisis. On the Gulf Coast, Guard teams are likely to speed equipment to civilian agencies and help BP and other oil companies with the cleanup. Defense Secretary Robert Gates has deployed the Guard under Title 32, which allows it to work for governors with the costs borne by the U.S. government. “We’ll be a part of that community-based force that knows the roads, that knows the back roads, that knows the estuaries, that knows the parish leadership,” McKinley said. But if the Army National Guard has enjoyed a rare renaissance, the Air National Guard is struggling with a massive transition from flying fighter jets to new missions that could include working on unmanned aircraft, in space or cyberspace. “Where we’re going to wind up? I wish I knew,” said McKinley, who led the Air Guard before taking control of the Guard bureau. “I fought it initially, but I think we’re transforming ourselves into a force that doesn’t need, necessarily, manned aircraft to do what we did from World War II on.” The changes started with congressionally mandated base realignments in 2005 and have picked up since. As the military begins to buy the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter and place the F-22 Raptor in certain units, the number of bases that once housed now-aging fighter jets will dwindle. That’s raised hackles on Capitol Hill, especially for members who want to protect the Guard’s fighter bases for homeland defense. “We’ve got to ask ourselves who flies the air protection,” Hargett said. While the Air Force makes the case that it can afford only so many aircraft, Hargett added, “I don’t think they’ve looked at the alternatives. ... Until they recognize that, I don’t think they’ll come up with a real requirement.” McKinley said although the transition will be painful, it’s time for the Guard to recognize that it needs to evolve. He praised units in North Dakota and New York that have moved on to fighting wars using drones — or “remotely piloted aircraft,” as the Pentagon describes them. Plus, the Air Guard is girding for a fight over the Air Force’s decision to pluck C-130s out of reserve units for active-duty use — a decision that was made without consulting the Guard or Congress. And if the Air Force doesn’t consolidate its plans soon, Hargett anticipates lawmakers will step in. “I expect if they haven’t solved the C-130 issue, Congress will push back on it,” he said.