National Guard presses Pentagon for reforms

The White House’s plan to increase the number of U.S. troops in Iraq is prompting National Guard officials to step up pressure for changes to mobilization, training and equipment that would have long-term implications for retention and efficiency.

Lt. Gen. Steven Blum, chief of the National Guard, told The Hill that his troops would be ready to serve — and, in many cases, serve again — in Iraq as part of President Bush’s new strategy.

“There is no question in my mind that if the nation needs us, we will do it,” he said after an Association of the United States Army breakfast. “It would be a huge mistake to not send the National Guard to shoulder some of that burden.”

Nevertheless, he said, “now is the time” to implement changes. “If we do not do that, we risk the ability to sustain an all-volunteer force, in my judgment,” Blum warned.

Pentagon policy limits Guard and Reserve units to 24 months of mobilization, or active duty. The Pentagon has interpreted that policy as 24 cumulative rather than consecutive months.

Because the war in Iraq has lasted for almost four years, longer than anticipated, National Guard officials complain that citizen soldiers have been used inefficiently.

Before they deploy overseas, they spend months at mobilization stations to train, which means their first deployments last up to 18 months.

Many Guard members have been deployed overseas as individuals and not as part of their full units, compounding the problem by harming unit cohesion. Many guardsmen have come close to serving 24 months. While the Guard’s goal has been to send troops overseas every six years, many have been deployed every three to four years. About 206,000 National Guard soldiers have been deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq.

National Guard officials, who want to see soldiers deploy for only 12 months at a time, would like to maintain a five-year force-generation cycle in which soldiers train for four years to be ready for deployment in the fifth.

According to a Pentagon source, the Army has agreed to reform the mobilization process, but it is unclear whether the Guard would be able to keep the desired force-generation cycle. The Guard would be able to provide troops for 12 straight months and a better schedule would turn out a more dependable force without the need for months of training before deployment.

A new mobilization policy would give the soldiers, their families and their employers more predictability, Blum said. Much of the training could be carried out at their home bases, he added. 

“If we had good predictability in a normal National Guard time we would equip and train those people to reduce the time” after they are called on active duty, Blum said.

A change in mobilization and training cannot occur without the proper equipment, he said. Traditionally, the Army shortchanged Guard and Reserve forces on their equipment — the Guard has a $29 billion shortfall in equipment — but the realities of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars are slowly forcing changes.

“If you do not have the equipment, you can’t train on it, and that means when you call the unit out it takes extended time to issue the equipment and train on the equipment, learn how to operate it,” Blum said. “That is time wasted. The equipment has to be in the soldiers’ hands to provide strategic depth to our reserve forces […] and to shorten the time it takes to get units ready to go overseas.”

A senior Army budget official said the National Guard now enjoys a “very healthy slice of the procurement dollars.”  

“There are a lot of resources dedicated to improving that equipment,” said Lt. Gen. David Melcher, the Army’s budget chief.

Blum expressed optimism that the Pentagon will be open to change.

“I think we are very close to having what I think will be a solution set to that,” Blum said. “I think the Army has come to recognize that this is the long war and we have to adopt a strategy for the citizen soldier.”