The military’s top National Guard official said the Army and Air National Guard have never been more trained and ready than they are right now, and service leaders are having no trouble recruiting and retaining soldiers and airmen at the moment. But that could change quickly if the force becomes idle after military operations in Afghanistan come to an end.
The guard is a completely different force today than it was on Sept. 11, 2001, Gen. Frank Grass, the chief of the National Guard Bureau, told the National Press Club on Thursday. With the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, the money that flowed to fund them changed the guard into an “operational” reserve component rather than a “strategic” one, which now is trained and equipped nearly identically to the active duty Army and Air Force, he said.
And Grass said the guard has been able to attract and keep high-quality service members, in part, because they’ve had regular opportunities to serve overseas.
“We have to keep this force employed. We have to find challenging missions for them,” he said. “These young men and women join because they think they’re going to deploy or they’re going to be challenged. If we go back to the strategic reserve that I joined, these young men and women will not stay with us. They will go find something else to do. They want to take the skill sets they learn in the military and be able to apply them. So as the budgets get tighter, we’ve got to figure out how to get that right.”
Grass said he’s received assurances from the Pentagon that the National Guard will remain an operational force. But during a time of declining budgets, his troops won’t be competing with the active component of the military just for overseas deployment opportunities, it’ll also be fighting to maintain its share of force structure within the overall Army and Air Force.
Gen. Ray Odierno, the Army chief of staff said earlier this week that most of the downsizing his service has planned to date involves reductions from the active Army, but if sequestration remains in place, the Army National Guard and Reserve will have to shrink too.
The Joint Chiefs of Staff are intently examining the proper balance between the active duty force and the reserve components. And while National Guard boosters frequently argue that DoD can preserve military capabilities at lower costs by moving more forces into the guard and reserve, Grass said it’s possible to take that argument too far: one unintended consequence, he said, would be to end up damaging the reserve components themselves.
“If you look throughout history, since World War II, the guard’s been pretty stable in terms of end strength. One of the issues we’re looking at right now though is if we have to take reductions to pay those [sequestration] bills, what does that look like? We know that we can take some reductions and maintain a quality force in the guard and pay the Budget Control Act bill,” he said. “But as we move forward, everything we do is tied to our two services. The reason we have our federal mission and our federal equipment is to do that federal mission when called upon. And as the active component loses money, we won’t be able to modernize. We won’t be able to send pilots to the schools that we need to as rapidly as we need to. We won’t be able to get people into basic training and advanced schools. [The National Guard] could win the battle and lose the opportunity to be able to train our folks, because our training infrastructure all comes from the active Army and Air Force.”
No rush into failure
Fortunately, Grass said, DoD now has some time to hit the books and analyze the right mix between active and reserve forces. Last month’s budget agreement bought the military some breathing room to make decisions, delaying the full-blown onset of the Budget Control Act’s spending limitations from 2014 to 2016 and adding more than $20 billion back into this year’s DoD budget.
“What we don’t want to do is rush into failure,” he said. “We’ve got some relief that gives us a few years to look at this. And we’re tightening belts left and right. We’re looking at the changes in units for the future. If we’re designing a force for 20 years from now, that force may look a whole lot different than it does today. The threat gets a vote too, and when we get beyond the next two years, do we stay on path with the Budget Control Act? What’s Congress going to do? Can we get to a point where we can find enough efficiencies and savings to do the missions, to do the strategy, to do the Asia Pacific shift, and still do that within the budget?”
Grass said there also are promising signs that the National Guard can get more combat power for the dollars it spends over the next few years. He said guard officials in every state and territory are trying to scale back overhead spending. And the guard also is hoping its recruiting and training costs will begin to decline once the war in Afghanistan is finished: over the past decade, those expenses have been unusually high.
“On the Army side, we had about 50 percent of our people with prior military service and 50 percent non-prior service when the war started. As we went into the war and everyone saw there were 760,000 guardsmen deployed, a lot of folks that got off of active duty knew if they joined the Guard, they were just going to go on another rotation, and they may have had two or three deployments already,” he said. “So what happened is we shifted, and today we’re probably sending in about 20 percent prior service and 80 percent non-prior service. That’s very costly because if we can bring in a trained soldier or airman off of active duty and into our units, we save a lot of money and we’ve got experience there. If we can shift that back closer to 50-50 that will be a big help for the future.”