As defense budgets tighten on, one might say strangle, the U.S. military, it will have to change its ways. Many of these changes are really a reversion to the practices and policies that were in place before September 11.
One such change or reversal must be in the role of the National Guard. Historically, the Guard has been a strategic reserve for the U.S. Army to be mobilized in federal service under Title 10 of the U.S. Code in the event of a larger-than-expected contingency. The other way the Guard can be mobilized is under Title 32 of the same code for a domestic emergency. In such an event the Guard is placed under the command of the state’s governor through its adjutant general.
During the decade-long conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, the role of the Guard morphed into that of an operational reserve. As an operational reserve, Guard forces participated routinely and regularly in ongoing military missions. Entire Guard brigade combat teams (BCTs) were deployed to both conflicts, Guard officers commanded entire multi-national Corps in Iraq. The service of the Guard has been exemplary. By the way, so has that of the Army Reserve, a separate institution that provides additional manpower and critical skills to complement capabilities and fill out formations in both the active Army and National Guard.
The strategic case for maintaining the Guard as an operational reserve has changed. The new defense strategy explicitly states that the military will not plan for a long-term, large scale stability operation – that is another Iraq or Afghanistan. So it makes little sense to go to the expense involved in keeping Guard formations at a relatively high state of readiness and providing them with heavy combat equipment, if they are not likely to be employed early in a future conflict.
Yes, it is true that the Guard can be cheaper to maintain than an equivalent active duty formation. But only as long as it is not deployed. This is because Guardsmen only train (and are paid for) 39 days a year unless activated. Once mobilized, they are at least as expensive to maintain and deploy as active component soldiers, or even more so. In addition, it can be especially expensive to maintain, mobilize and train heavy units such as armored BCTs or Apache attack helicopter battalions in the Guard.
As the wars in Southwest Asia wind down, the National Guard needs to revert to its traditional role as a strategic reserve. Given its Title 32 responsibilities as well as the importance of a strategic reserve, the Guard’s end strength should be set at no less than its current level of about 450,000. However, it should shed its heavy combat equipment, some of which requires more than 39 days a year training in order for crews and maintainers to remain proficient. Instead, heavy combat formations should be converted into lighter capabilities such as engineers, military police, transportation and intelligence formations which would make them more useful also to the states in the event of a domestic emergency.
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