The way some soldiers in the Regular Army talk about the National Guard, you’d think we were living through the early post-Vietnam era rather than a time of multi-front wars in which the Guard has played a vital part. President Johnson opted to rely on conscription rather than the Guard to fill out Army ranks in Indochina, and as a result the reserves became a refuge for men who didn’t want to fight. Not exactly an image-booster for the Guard. But fast-forward a generation, and 286,000 members of the Army and Air National Guard served in Iraq, successfully performing just about every role imaginable. So there’s no reason to be running down the Guard today.
In fact, in the current budgetary and political environment, the Army National Guard is arguably becoming more important to the future of U.S. landpower than it was in the past. First of all, most soldiers in the total force now serve in the reserve component — the Army Reserve and the Army National Guard — rather than in the active-duty component known as the Regular Army. Specifically, the reserve component will number at least 550,000 soldiers in fiscal 2015 (350,000 in the Guard), compared with 490,000 for the active component. And the Regular Army is likely to continue shrinking at a faster rate than the reserves, possibly compressing to only 420,000 soldiers by decade’s end. At that level, the active-duty force would be hard-pressed to cope with multiple contingencies and sustain combat rotations unless backed up by the reserves.
Second, the Army National Guard may soon harbor higher levels of combat experience than the Regular Army, due to the heavy use of reserve forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the gradual turnover in the makeup of the active-duty component. Most members of the Guard already have combat experience, and it is common practice for departing members of the Regular Army to join the Guard when they begin their second careers. So the day is not far off when the most proficient, experienced tank drivers and helicopter pilots may reside not in the Regular Army, but in the Guard.
Third, as emerging enemies rely increasingly on commercial innovations like smart phones and internet chat, the skills the Army needs to conduct military operations are migrating away from some traditional disciplines. More and more of the skills needed, from cyber forensics to supply-chain management, have reached their highest stage of development in the commercial economy — precisely the place where many Guard members have made their civilian careers. Retired Lt. Gen. David Barno of the Center for a New American Security has questioned why the Regular Army would want to re-invent the wheel in some of these skill areas when sharper, more proficient experts might already be members of the Guard.
Fourth, and perhaps most importantly, the Guard is rooted in the political systems and cultural fabric of the individual states in a way that the Regular Army no longer is. With conscription long gone, only about one-half of one-percent of the U.S. population currently serves in the military; barely one in five members of Congress have served. As budget deficits grow after 2015, the Regular Army will be hard-pressed to sustain political support for its programs in Washington if there are no urgent threats on the horizon. But the Guard operates in literally thousands of local communities, and it therefore has a greater capacity for mobilizing political support than the Regular Army does. As former Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill observed, “all politics is local.”
The implication of these facts is that the Regular Army really can’t afford to get into fights with its reserve component, particularly the National Guard. Not only is it likely to lose the contest, but it will divide its strength at a time when the other services are working hard to gain budget share at the Army’s expense. The Guard has numbers, it has experience, it has skills and it has political connections that the Regular Army will need to call on in the future. And its members cost a fraction of what active-duty soldiers do to keep in uniform; they use fewer healthcare, education, housing and retirement benefits than members of the Regular Army typically do. So rather than treating the National Guard like a rival, the Regular Army should see the Guard for the ally that it potentially can be in the budget wars and overseas conflicts that lie ahead.
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