Generals warn senators not to expand the Joint Chiefs

A Senate panel was mixed Thursday on whether the National Guard should be given a formal seat on the Joint Chiefs of Staff as the nation’s top generals lobbied against the idea. 

Senate Armed Services Committee members generally came down in one of two camps, either forcefully supporting giving the Guard chief a formal seat or at least expressing willingness to consider the move.

The six sitting members of the Joint Chiefs — the chairman and vice chairman and the chiefs of the four military services — bluntly told the panel the move would create legal problems and could hinder combat operations.

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Meanwhile, legislation that would expand the Joint Chiefs to include the National Guard chief sits idle in the Senate, despite having 65 co-sponsors. While it appears that measure would pass, there is no sign that Senate leaders plan to bring it to a vote.

Senate Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) offered a description of a more likely legislative path for the plan, saying he expects the bill will be condensed into an amendment that he expects will be offered when the defense authorization bill hits the Senate floor. Levin said earlier this week that could happen in the next few weeks.

Only Air Force Gen. Craig McKinley broke with his four-star general brethren, lobbying in favor of the plan.

The Guard needs an official member of Joint Chiefs — McKinley now sits in on all Joint Staff meetings at the chairman’s invitation — to look out for its “best interests,” he said.

The Guard chief needs to have the weight of law behind him as he advises the chairman, who takes military advice to the Defense secretary and president, on difficult operational and budgetary decisions that affect the Guard and its members, McKinley said.

Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey led the uniformed leaders’ charge against the plan, saying it is “unclear to me what problem we are trying to solve.”

Dempsey, who took over as chairman last month, told the panel he is satisfied with the advice he gets from McKinley when the Joint Chiefs meet in its secure Pentagon conference room, known as “The Tank.”

“I need and want him in The Tank,” Dempsey said of the National Guard chief. 

But only as a non-official member, because to Dempsey and the service chiefs, the National Guard is not a separate military service. 

Rather, it is part of the Army and Air Force — and those services’ uniformed and civilian leaders make decisions on how to fund, train and equip all active and reserve component forces that are a part of their “total force,” the chiefs said repeatedly during the three-hour hearing.

Elevating the Guard chief could throw off the balance of the Joint Staff — or at least the perception of it, Dempsey and the service bosses argued. That’s because they feel the Guard chief’s elevation would give the Army and Air Force two members, while the Navy and Marines would have only one seat each.

Army Chief of Staff Gen. Raymond Odierno told the committee he worries, because the National Guard lacks a civilian secretary possessed by the four military services,  that the move would undercut one of the U.S. military’s central building blocks: civilian control.

Levin noted there are big differences among Senate Armed Services members about the idea.

Sens. Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.) and James Inhofe (R-Okla.) said they remain undecided.

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) gave a full-throated endorsement of the plan, saying the “citizen-soldiers’ time has come.”

Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) also supports the plan and implored the chiefs to “not deny us this moment” of apparent bipartisan agreement in the Senate when the two parties rarely agree on major issues.

Graham read from what he said was a campaign-trail promise from then-presidential candidate Barack Obama vowing to elevate the Guard boss to a permanent member of the Joint Chiefs. 

He asked Jeh Johnson, the Pentagon’s general counsel, whether now-President Obama has since changed his mind. Johnson shifted in his seat and said he is unaware of any change in Obama’s thinking on the matter.

Moments later, Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) lightly panned Graham for “bringing politics into this hearing,” saying “we have enough of that around … lately.”

Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.), a former Navy secretary, said the notion of elevating the Guard chief is “unnecessary.”

“I don’t believe the members of the Joint Chiefs have been failing to represent the needs” of the current make up of the group, Webb said.

And Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.) noted current law requires sitting governors to nominate Guard chief candidates. Reed questioned whether it is in the nation’s interests for state executives to have a role in picking future Guard chiefs.