Ignoring the National Guard is dangerous

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At the last minute, Congress recently approved a funding plan to reimburse the National Guard Bureau for $500 million in expenses incurred while securing Washington following the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol. Without the congressional deal, the Guard was at risk of a funding collapse. While this budget crisis put the problems facing the National Guard in stark relief, it is not the first challenge the Guard has faced in recent years.   

On the heels of an Aug. 19 Capitol Hill bomb threat, an upcoming “Justice for J6” demonstration has prompted a complete activation of the D.C. police department. Given ongoing security concerns around the Capitol, the discussion around the potential role of the National Guard in an emergency situation is as urgent as ever. To avoid a national security emergency, policymakers in both the legislative and executive branches need to reassess how, when and why the Guard is utilized from both operational and readiness perspectives. The current path appears to be unsustainable.   

The Department of Defense (DOD) has relied on the Guard’s support for decades, placing great stress on the institution. Since 9/11, more guard units have been deployed overseas than at any time since World War II, indicating an enormous shift in the way the Guard is used. The reliance on the National Guard to fulfill wartime personnel demands marks a transition from a strategic reserve to an operational reserve, in which the Guard meets similar requirements to active-duty troops without the necessary resources. The past two years, though, have put a spotlight on the wide range of circumstances under which the Guard is called to serve: state missions, COVID-19 missions, missions at the southern border, securing the U.S. Capitol, and the presidential inauguration, as well as overseas missions

Throughout 2020, the National Guard responded to a series of wildfires and civil unrest as they occurred across the country, while at the same time supporting the COVID-19 mission through testing, food banks, vaccinations and logistics. In 2020, the National Guard reported 11 million “man days,” compared to 2 million in 2019 — a 450 percent increase.   

Despite being expected to operate as the functional equivalents of the active-duty force, the reserve component — made up of state National Guard units in addition to the unaffiliated Reserve units — has not been granted the appropriate resources and planning necessary to execute active-duty expectations while operating within part-time time constraints. The implications trickle down all the way to the individuals expected to serve.   

Guard members have gone without pay. Food insecurity among them and their families has significantly increased since the beginning of 2020 — more than double the national average. As mobilizations have increased in the past 18 months, stress has been placed on the civilian employment of guard members, sometimes leading to a temporary or permanent loss of income. Guard units are being deployed more frequently than in previous years, putting training needs at risk.

Institutionally, the burdens placed on the National Guard for the past 18 months have led to a financial crisis. The primary responsibility of the Guard is the need of the home state. When responding to national crises, however, those guard members are unavailable for emergencies that may occur in their own backyards. For example, 3,200 Louisiana guard members were deployed to Iraq during Hurricane Katrina, diminishing the state’s emergency response capacity; in another example, an Oregon National Guard deployment to Afghanistan during wildfire season reduced helicopter capacity to fight severe wildfires at home. For states with smaller populations such as Delaware, New Hampshire and Wyoming, a reduction in available emergency manpower is a significant risk. Several states have been forced to pre-emptively cancel training exercises due to lack of funds.  

There is promising evidence that members of Congress and incoming political appointees are paying attention. Senate confirmation hearings for President Biden’s most senior DOD appointments demonstrate that both appointees and senators are focused on issues facing the institution. Confirmation hearings for Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, Secretary of the Army Christine Wormuth and Undersecretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness Gil Cisneros emphasized policymakers’ focus on the key role of the National Guard.  

Senators such as Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) and Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) have signaled their interest in this issue through direct inquiries during the confirmation hearings regarding the role of the National Guard and the stress placed upon it within the past 18 months. While it is heartening that the issues of the National Guard are finally being raised to the highest levels of policymaking, concrete actions need to be taken to maintain the Guard as a significant portion of the total force and reduce the stress on readiness and training.     

The National Guard cannot be expected to function at the level of the active-duty force with fewer resources, especially for those serving on a part-time basis. A fundamental reassessment of the role of the National Guard is required. The DOD should undertake a study of mobilizations of the Guard in the past 20 years and contrast their findings with the stated mission of the reserve component as “an uncommitted force kept aside for use in the event of an emergency.”    

Without urgent congressional negotiations, a future where Guard units are at the brink of insolvency will result in a national security crisis. Regardless of whether the  demonstration planned on behalf of Jan. 6 defendants requires National Guard action, it is just the latest example of the vital role of emergency preparedness. To avoid a dangerous situation in the future, the National Guard must return to its stated emergency mission or be appropriated the funds necessary to assume the increased mission.  

Nathalie Grogan is a research assistant in the Military, Veterans, and Society Program at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS).  

Tags armed services Defense spending Department of Defense Gil Cisneros Jeanne Shaheen Joe Biden Joni Ernst Lloyd Austin National Guard US military

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