News Story - Governors Worry Guard's Overseas Mission Leaves States Vulnerable
BY HARRY ESTEVE And DAVID WOOD
c.2005 Newhouse News Service
Pentagon officials gained 10 helicopters and hundreds of extra soldiers when they ordered two Montana National Guard units into Iraq late last year.
But they also undercut Montana's wildland firefighting force, leaving a state with millions of acres of trees critically low on manpower and aircraft as it enters fire season.
"We have two Chinooks," Gov. Brian Schweitzer said, referring to his remaining helicopter fleet. "But I don't have flight crews for them. They're all in Iraq."
Some post-Sept. 11 advice for Schweitzer and other U.S. governors: Get used to it.
The Army National Guard no longer can be viewed as the sluggish reserve force it once was, geared for war but much more likely to fill sandbags or hack out a fire line. Instead, it has become a working arm of the active military.
This is no temporary shuffle, brought on by the necessities of the war in Iraq, but a permanent shift with deep ramifications that already are being felt.
-- Governors, who have the title of commander in chief of their Guards, now must scramble and negotiate with other states to deal with natural disasters or potential terrorist strikes.
-- Tensions between states and the Pentagon are on the rise as a military reorganization puts the Guard in a central role in current and future combat missions.
-- It's becoming much more difficult to recruit cops, CPAs, housewives, students and others into what historically has been a part-time, citizen reserve force.
In short, the National Guard has been redefined, and the shock waves caused by the change are just starting to ripple across the nation.
"When I first became adjutant general, 90 percent of the mobilizations were to support the state," said Maj. Gen. Paul Monroe, recently retired commander of the California National Guard. "Now, 90 percent are to support the federal government. That was never envisioned."
Governors generally have supported the mobilizations of their Guard units, saying they understand the needs of wartime and want to do their part. But support has begun to wane as it becomes clear that military planners are demanding a bigger share of the Guard, and will for years to come.
Washington Gov. Christine Gregoire attended a National Governors Association meeting in Arizona this spring to hear a military briefing on the future of the Guard. What she heard shocked her.
"The long-term strategy for national defense is to rely on the National Guard," the first-term governor said later. "We sent a message that they'd better rethink their long-term strategy.
"The National Guard is not, in my estimation, prepared to do that," she said. "We need them at home for natural disasters."
Governors have reason to be concerned. Conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan have drawn Guard soldiers and equipment from the states at a pace not seen since World War II.
The readiness of the stay-behind units -- the ones available to governors -- "has declined steadily," according to a 2004 Government Accountability Office report. It's not just the lack of available soldiers that hurts, but also a huge loss of equipment, including night-vision goggles, machine guns, trucks and radios, the report stated.
"This is an important point because it further degrades the readiness of some units that may be needed in the near future," the report stated.
It's those future deployments that worry governors as much as the current problems. The Pentagon has begun a long-term reshaping of the Guard's combat brigades into more agile, easily mobilized units that can go to war interchangeably with active-duty Army brigades.
The plan, not yet fully funded, calls for 34 Army National Guard brigade combat teams of about 3,500 soldiers each that would have the same training, equipment and mission as active-duty Army brigade combat teams. Each brigade, once this structure is completed in 2010, would be called to duty once every six years given current requirements, planners say.
This development signals perhaps the most significant new role for the Guard since the end of World War II. The Guard then was set up as a powerful but slow-moving hedge against another world-scale conflict, most likely with the Soviet army. If there were such a war, active-duty troops would take the lead, and the Guard would be mobilized over a period of a year or more.
Short of that World War III scenario, Guard units were available to governors and local communities for everything from manning fire lines to helping build parks.
Now, however, the Guard has become a frequently tapped source of soldiers and weapons for much smaller operations. Even if the need for troops in Afghanistan and Iraq begins to taper off, the Guard is expected to continue to play key roles in future military actions.
For military planners, the changes make sense in what they view as a long, labor-intensive war against terrorists.
"Following 9/11, we realized we were in a different kind of war, and perhaps our forces were not as agile as they should be, not structured right," said Tom Hall, assistant secretary of defense for reserve affairs. "The Army has begun addressing that."
But for governors and others who value the Guard's domestic mission, such plans smack of federal dominance.
"My concern is the states are being given less and less of a role, and it's becoming a federal program," Oregon Gov. Ted Kulongoski said. "I don't think that's good for the states, and I don't think it's good for the National Guard."
Other critics go a step further, arguing that the Pentagon is intentionally drawing down the strength of the Guard because it's less expensive than bulking up the regular Army.
"It's economics, that's the bottom line," said Craig Trebilcock, a lawyer from York, Pa., who also is a lieutenant colonel in the Army Reserves. "The civilian leadership in the Pentagon has decided to outsource the war on terrorism to the Guard and Reserves. ... It's because the Guard and Reserves are so cheap."
CRAVING LARGER ROLE
Even before the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks and the subsequent U.S. invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, the Pentagon was stepping up its use of the Guard in military zones, including Bosnia and the Sinai Peninsula. One reason, said Charles Cragin, assistant to former Defense Secretary William Cohen, is the Guard craved a bigger military role.
"They've always said, `Hey, Coach, put us in,"' Cragin said. "And guess what? The coach put them in."
But the heavy and continuing demand for troops in Iraq was not foreseen by the Pentagon. More than two years after Baghdad fell, 144,000 U.S. troops remain in Iraq, and one of every four is a Guardsman. Thousands more Guard troops have been put on notice that they will be sent to Afghanistan next year, and rotation of Guard soldiers to Iraq continues.
Most Guard commanders express confidence that they can handle the dual role. Maj. Gen. Lawrence Lafrenz, who leads the Idaho National Guard, recently visited his troops in Iraq and came back impressed.
Guard soldiers, with their civilian backgrounds, are "uniquely suited for missions in Iraq and Afghanistan" -- trained and equipped to fend off the enemy, but also able to teach such skills as advanced farming techniques to the local residents, Lafrenz said.
But governors tend to see the Guard's role differently.
Idaho Gov. Dirk Kempthorne was among a group of governors who expressed anxiety about the Guard's future in a letter earlier this year to Lt. Gen. Steven Blum, chief of the National Guard Bureau in Washington, D.C. Kempthorne and other members of the National Governors Association asked Blum how the Guard Bureau would ensure states have enough troops and equipment for state emergencies and homeland defense.
"A lot of governors have a lot of questions about the rotation of troops, about the timetable of what troops go when," said Mike Journee, spokesman for Kempthorne.
Governors also are worried about the downward trend in recruiting for the National Guard, and whether continued deployments will hurt their ability to maintain a full militia.
Blum has promised governors they will have at least 50 percent of their Guard forces available at all times, and so far, has made good on that promise. But governors are growing more and more leery as the fire, flood and hurricane seasons approach. And even some Guard commanders have begun to protest.
"By the time you get to the second and third rotation, all of your units in most states are broken," said Maj. Gen. Bill Libby, adjutant general of the Maine National Guard. "We only have two units left in the state of Maine that haven't been deployed. We're running out of units."
This isn't the first clash between state and federal authorities over use of the Guard.
In the mid-1980s, disputes erupted over deployments of Guardsmen to Central America to build roads and military bases and to train local forces. In 1987 Minnesota Gov. Rudy Perpich and six other governors sued the Pentagon, arguing that state governors had the authority to keep troops home.
The Supreme Court ultimately ruled that federal power overrules state authority, unless the state has "immediate need" for its Guard troops in an emergency. So far, no governor has made that claim, but the coming fire season in the West could test it.
In Montana, where about 50 percent of the Army National Guard has been deployed, Schweitzer has asked the Pentagon to send home some of his 1,500 soldiers. He wants them back in time for the summer fire season, and he wants the helicopters that went with them.
"Understand this," Schweitzer said. "I am not a governor who would suggest the soldiers of Montana will not carry their share of the load in any conflict." But he said he also must look out for the safety of his state, and the Guard is the most powerful tool at his disposal.
Schweitzer said he withdrew his request after he was promised Guard troops and helicopters from other states if necessary. But that comes with its own problems, he said, such as the possibility of flat-land pilots being asked to navigate through forested mountains.
In the meantime, states face the problem of a steadily shrinking militia. Congress plans to authorize fewer National Guard troops in the 2006 budget, and a recent military base closure proposal calls for either shutting down or shifting people and equipment out of nearly 50 armories and Air Guard bases. Many of those units would report to active-duty bases.
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who recommended the changes, said they will save money and help make the military a stronger, more adaptable force against terrorism.
But Col. Mike Caldwell, deputy director of the Oregon National Guard, sees the changes as one more sign of the federal government's increasing control of the Guard.
"The Department of Defense doesn't give a rip about the state mission" of the Guard, Caldwell said. "Just look at the evidence. They don't fund it, they don't recognize it. They just say, `It's not our problem."'
June 14, 2005
(Harry Esteve is a staff writer for The Oregonian of Portland, Ore. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. David Wood can be contacted at email@example.com)