National Guard armories could be shuttered and Minnesota towns hit by tornadoes or floods couldn’t count on a Guard soldier to stand watch. There may be fewer National Guard helicopters to help during forest fires.
A widening — and unusually polarized — rift over funding is pitting the country’s active-duty military against its Guard and Reserve comrades in arms.
After more than a decade of war in which the Guard and Reserves battled side by side with their active-duty colleagues, the fight over funding in a postwar environment is quickly getting ugly. It’s over who will take more of a hit from cuts in troop size and funding and who provides more bang for the buck.
It was made more intense recently when the Army’s top general appeared to dismiss the role of the country’s Guard units, saying that Guard soldiers “only train 39 days a year” and that they were not “interchangeable” with the active Army, which he said maintains a higher level of readiness.
The comments from Army Chief of Staff Ray Odierno drew the ire of Congress, including Rep. Tim Walz, D-Minn., a retired command sergeant major of the Minnesota Guard. Walz and Rep. Duncan Hunter, a former Marine who still serves in the Marine Reserve, called Odierno’s comments “irresponsible.”
At its heart, the argument is about who will emerge victorious in a peacetime world. The active-duty Army now has about 540,000 soldiers and is scheduled to reduce its ranks to 490,00 by 2017. At the national level, the Guard’s current troop levels of 350,000 could be reduced by sequestration and other cuts to 315,00 by 2017.
Minnesota could lose 1,000
In Minnesota, that could mean the loss of about 1,000 positions in the National Guard’s 13,000-member force. Leaders of the Minnesota National Guard warn that the consequences could hit some of the most visible aspects of the Guard’s domestic mission.
In addition, the active-duty Army has proposed assuming all tactical aviation functions, which translates to taking control of such things as the Apache attack helicopter, which is armed with machine guns and missiles.
The threats involve the National Guard’s Apache units in 10 states, where the Army has suggested a plan to move the Apaches, the world’s most advanced attack helicopters, and Lakota light-utility helicopters from the Guard to active-duty forces.
In Florida this week, Guard leaders also raised concerns about the loss of as many as 1,000 Guard members, 10 percent of its force.
The Minnesota Guard does not have attack helicopters. If Guard units from other states are forced to give up theirs, though, it’s likely the Minnesota Guard will be forced turn over some of its helicopters, like its Blackhawks, to compensate for the loss.
“You might not see as many helicopters available to fight fires or floods,” said Brigadier Gen. Neal Loidolt, commander of the Guard’s 34th Infantry Division. “You might not see as many soldiers available to provide security at tornadoes or walk the dikes of the Red River Valley. It could also mean that areas in towns in our state where you’ve been accustomed to seeing soldiers in units, you might not see soldiers in units in those places anymore.”
Each state, the three U.S. territories and the District of Columbia has an Army National Guard. The units are sovereign organizations responding to state leadership. But they can be called up, or “federalized,” to active duty during wartime.
In the past 10 years, they made up 28 percent of the 2.3 million service members who deployed to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Minnesota Guard’s 34th Infantry Division’s 1st Brigade was the longest-serving brigade combat team of any unit during the Iraq war, when it was activated for 22 months and spent a total of 16 months in Iraq.
“I suspect that would not have happened if it weren’t a comparable or more than comparable Army brigade combat team,” Loidolt said.
‘Big Army’ vs. locals
Odierno’s comments last month renewed a traditional schism between “Big Army” and the Guard and Reserve that many thought had disappeared.
Forty minutes into a wide-ranging question-and-answer period at the National Press Club, Odierno said the Guard would not be capable of taking on more of the active-duty Army’s responsibilities because the full-time force brings a higher level of readiness, which, he said, costs more money to maintain.
Shortly afterward, the president of the National Guard Association of the United States, the Guard’s lobbying arm, called the remarks “disrespectful and simply not true.”
Walz said in an interview Friday that Odierno has yet to respond to his letter. A spokesman for the Pentagon said Odierno was traveling and unavailable for comment.
In the letter, Walz, a co-chairman of the House National Guard and Reserve Components Caucus, pointed to figures that he said show that the cost to maintain one active-duty component infantry brigade combat team is about twice that of a reserve component because Guard units don’t require such things as subsidized base housing, they train less often, and they are called on only when needed.
“This is quantifiable,” Walz said. “When we’re making sure the first priority is this nation’s national security, but making sure it is in the most cost effective manner, you can’t dispute the facts. To make the comment that they are not ready sets the wrong tone.”
Walz remembers a time when the Guard was regarded as nothing more than weekend warriors, left with aging equipment or sometimes no equipment at all. At one point after the first Gulf War, Walz said his Guard artillery unit had to conduct drills by taping the outline of a howitzer cannon on the gym floor and using toilet paper rolls as the powder charge.
“That was a horrible way to do business, it was a horrible way to do national security and it was very wasteful,” Walz said. “It should not be a pick-and-choose, but when it got tight it appears the Pentagon slipped back into its ways.”