The National Guard: Grounded in America's past, Essential to its future

After more than a decade of combat operations, the experience and readiness of our Soldiers and Airmen is at an all-time high. More than 50 percent of the nation’s Guard forces are combat veterans, standing confident and ready to meet the demands of commanders overseas, as well as governors at home. It is because of these men and women, and for them, that congressional leaders, governors and others have rallied behind the Guard in the face of dramatic cuts to our force. At the conclusion of previous wars in our history, the Department of Defense has sought to save money by slashing the budget of the National Guard and relegating it to service as a strategic reserve. That unfortunate tradition continues today as significant elements of the Guard are at risk of being cut dramatically or eliminated entirely.

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Following this course of action in today’s fluid strategic environment would constitute a striking failure to capitalize on Guardsmen’s experience, capability, and low cost. Primarily a part-time force, brought to duty only to maintain proficiency and when needed for operations, the Guard is an extraordinarily cost-efficient solution in the dialogue on how to best spend defense dollars. Evolving from its roots in colonial militias, today’s National Guard retains its community mission while simultaneously maintaining readiness to deploy whenever and wherever the need arises. Unlike other military forces the Guard is directly responsive to the state. Guardsmen are familiar faces alongside other emergency forces when disaster strikes, demonstrating their dual utility for American taxpayers.

The ground truth is that the Guard does more with less at a time when such efficiencies are desperately needed. The Air component of the National Guard currently accounts for only 6 percent of the total Air Force budget but makes up 19 percent of its personnel and provides 30 to 40 percent of its total fighter, tanker and airlift capacity. Likewise, the Army component accounts for less than 11 percent of the Army budget but makes up 32 percent of its personnel and more than 40 percent of its operating forces. The Commission on the Guard and Reserves, which was created by Congress, reported that members of active duty branches are four times more expensive than reserve component members when not deployed.

There is, and will always be, a need for a strong active duty force. At no time in recent history have the bonds between active and reserve forces been as strong as they are today. Serving alongside one another, and shedding blood on the same ground has fostered a mutual respect and admiration that makes us better as a military. Our active component forces are the foundation of the finest military force on the planet, bar none. But the reality is that large standing militaries cost money, not just in current years but down the line as those personnel retire.

Funding a part time force at a fraction of the cost makes sense. The vision of an active military that is lean and agile supported by a robust capability resident in the Guard is a model that addresses our fiscal realities without losing sight of our strategic priorities. To make this vision a reality a fundamental shift in thinking must occur, one that will effectively reverse the current balance of forces from a large active force with a small supporting reserve to the opposite model where the majority of the capability is resident in the Guard and distributed in communities throughout the country.

This vision can and will work for our nation. It is fundamental to our heritage and increasingly part of our fiscal imperative. It is a solution already embedded in every American town and city, where our Soldiers and Airmen stand ready to meet the call, in peace or in war. Putting capability in the Guard maintains key defense requirements, available for active service when needed, without the massive cost that comes with a large standing military. Many of us believe this is the right model at the right time for our nation and it deserves serious consideration in the current debate over our military’s future.

Maj. Gen. Baldwin is adjutant general for the California National Guard, the nation's largest and most frequently deployed National Guard force.