A Fight at Home

By Rhett Cooder | August 1, 2006

In demand throughout the U.S. and around the world, the Army National Guard is fighting for respect in Washington--again.

Not too long ago, the Army National Guard's top worry in Washington was protecting and improving the health care provided to Guard members under the Pentagon's umbrella. No more.

At a time when 69,000 Guard troops are deployed to combat operations in Iraq, Afghanistan and other hot spots in the fight against terrorists and sent south to bolster U.S. border security, National Guard leaders find themselves occupied with fending off attacks in their own backyard. In the last year, assaults in Washington included Defense Dept. budget plans--drafted with no input from National Guard officials--to cut the Army Guard's end strength by 17,000 and the exclusion of Guard leaders from the Army's final deliberations on the Quadrennial Defense Review setting near-term U.S. defense strategy.


As the National Guard Assn. of the United States gathers next month in Albuquerque, N.M. for its 128th General Conference, not much has changed.

"We believe that the Department of Defense is still deeply mired in an institutional bias toward the National Guard," the association's president, retired Brig. Gen. Stephen Koper, told the House of Representatives' Armed Service Committee during a June 13 hearing. "Senior Guard leadership has only been involved in Pentagon decision-making as an afterthought, requiring the adjutants general, governors, Congress and NGAUS to launch vigorous campaigns to reverse decisions that were made without adequate Guard input."

The hearing was held to address one of the responses to what Guard members and supporters see as the regular Army's disregard of a unit that perhaps more than ever is crucial to the defense of the United States. (In addition to the 69,000 Guard troops currently deployed, Guard officials said, more than 350 Army Guard soldiers have been killed in the war on terror, and almost 3,000 more have been wounded.) This is a call for elevation of the head of the National Guard Bureau to a four-star billet from the current three-star one, with membership on the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff.

As combat operations against terrorist organizations and bases continue and the Army faces ongoing pressure to maintain a high pace of operations without a commensurate increase in annual funding, it is not likely Guard leaders will be able to stand easy on the home front any time soon. That is so despite a substantial political power base that includes the governors that serve as commanders in chief of the various state and territorial Guard organizations and the individual state congressional delegations whose constituents are protected and aided by Guard members.

In part because of Army maneuvering perceived as anti-Guard, two senators proposed the National Defense Enhancement and National Guard Empowerment Act to, among other things, elevate the National Guard Bureau chief to a four-star position and give the chief a seat on the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Proposed by Sens. Kit Bond, R-Mo., and Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., the bill has been adopted in part--after heavy lobbying by NGAUS--as an amendment to the Senate version of the 2007 defense authorization bill. Bond and Leahy are co-chairs of the Senate National Guard Caucus.

The proposed defense authorization amendment retains language that would elevate the Guard Bureau chief to a four-star position and ensure that the deputy commander of U.S. Northern Command be a Guardsman. (The latter is seen as boosting the Guard Bureau's ability to identify and validate equipment needs as well as establishing direct lines of communication among the defense secretary, Joint Chiefs of Staff and state and federal agencies.)

"Today's Guard is needlessly frozen in a 20th-century Pentagon organization chart," Leahy said in unveiling his and Bond's proposal. "Our amendment clears away some institutional cobwebs to let the National Guard be the best it can be."

Bond said the Guard's role at the Pentagon should reflect its role in the war on terror. "They are not there when critical decisions affecting them are being made at the Pentagon," he said. "We need to give the Guard more bureaucratic muscle so that the force will not be continually pushed around in policy and budget debate."

On the other side of Congress, the House has adopted a defense appropriations bill that would restore funding for an Army Guard end strength of 350,000.

That Guard's political base is also one reason Congress created an independent comission to examine the roles and missions of both it and the military Reserve. The Commission on the National Guard and Reserves has been holding hearings around the United States since March to gather information and commentary on those and related issues. At a hearing in June, a researcher at a key Washington think tank, the Center for Strategic and International Studies, reinforced the Guard leaders and backers' arguments about the crucial role that organization is playing in American defense today. (The center released a report on its study of the Guard and Reserve July 12, which is available at,com_csis_pubs/task,view/id,3338.)

"The health of the reserve component of the military services"--that is, the Guard and Reserve--"is critical to the overall health of the U.S. military," the researcher, a senior fellow at the center named Christine Wormuth, told the committee.

She said the center's research had found that demand for U.S. military forces in the future would remain high. "While the demand for military forces is not likely to remain as high as it is today with the operations going on in Iraq and Afghanistan," she said, "the security environment is complex and there will likely continue to be a lot on the military's plate."

In particular, she argued, the United States almost certainly will need to continue to maintain forces in Iraq and Afghanistan for many years, in addition to deploying them to the former Yugoslavia; Guantanamo, Cuba; the Horn of Africa, and elsewhere.

"Moreover, the military will need to be prepared to respond to potential catastrophic events here at home, and unforeseen events that might happen overseas that might require U.S. action." That would have a major impact on the Guard and Reserves.

She also argued the Guard and Reserves must remain capable of multiple missions, with less emphasis on conventional campaigns. "The demand for military forces will not only remain high, military forces in the future will also need to be able to perform many kinds of missions," she said. "In this context, we think it is important to continue to have a reserve component that can contribute across the range of military missions."

The research indicated that that the Pentagon cannot meet operational requirements without drawing significantly on the reserve component. "This is particularly true for the Army and Air Force," Wormuth testified.

Furthermore, she said, "the Defense Dept. needs to accept civil support as a central mission and act accordingly." Almost five years after the September 11 attacks, she said, "the Pentagon continues to hold the civil support mission--responding to catastrophic events whether natural or man-made--at arm's length." If protecting homeland is the United States' top priority, the Pentagon must start planning, programming and budgeting for the mission. "And this includes determining where the Guard and Reserves fit into the picture and what kind of training and equipment they need."

Wormuth said the military should leverage the National Guard to form the backbone of regional civil support forces.

The response to Hurricane Katrina along the U.S. Gulf Coast about a year ago "made clear that the nation is not yet prepared to respond to a no-warning catastrophic event," she said. "The National Guard, as the state militia in the 54 states and territories, provides an infrastructure on which to build and is one that is controlled in most scenarios by the state governors--a key issue."

She said "a crucial missing piece" in the U.S. national preparedness system is regional planning, training, and exercising. She recommended dual-hatting one of the existing Guard state joint force headquarters in each of the 10 Federal Emergency Management Agency regions "as the headquarters for what could ultimately become an interagency regional headquarters responsible for organizing and coordinating regional planning, training, and exercising."

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