Senators look to stop National Guard cuts

A bipartisan group of senators is planning to block the Army’s plan to cut the National Guard force from 350,000 to 335,000 by 2017.

The group also wants to prevent the transfer of the reserve force’s Apache attack helicopters to the active duty side. 

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Led by Sens. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), co-chairs of the National Guard Caucus, the group calls for an independent commission to look into these proposals, which could effectively delay any decision for years. 

Army officials say they have few other options to reduce costs in the face of automatic spending cuts, but National Guard supporters say it’s questionable how much would be saved by reducing the force’s size. They argue the Air National Guard would lose critical combat capability from the transfer of the Apache helicopters.

The bill would also prevent the Army from cutting National Guard forces below 345,000, and from transferring or preparing to transfer the helicopters to the active side in 2015. 

“The changes fundamentally alter what it means for the National Guard to be a combat reserve of the Army, and they would render the nation’s operational reserve insufficient in its ability to retain gains in experience and readiness the reserve has achieved over a decade of deployment,” Graham said in a statement Tuesday. 

So far, there are 19 bill co-sponsors, including nine Democrats. 

“It is time for a national Commission on Army Force Structure to defend the Guard against budget cut attacks,” said Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.). “I want the National Guard to have a seat at the table while the Army makes decisions on the National Guard’s future fate in this more frugal fiscal environment.”

The National Guard Association of the United States applauded the bill. 

“National Guardsmen across the county are indebted to the Senate National Guard Caucus for introducing legislation yesterday that would take an independent, unbiased look at how best to structure the Army for 2020 and beyond,” said the group’s president, retired Maj. Gen. Gus Hargett.

The House Armed Services Committee could issue its own recommendations on the cuts as early as Wednesday as it hashes out its 2015 National Defense Authorization Act. 

The Senate Armed Services Committee, which Graham is a member of, is in the process of drafting its version of the defense bill, which the committee plans to debate on May 21.