National Guard Bracing for Budget Cuts

By Grace V. Jean
Like many in the Pentagon, Air Force Gen. Craig R. McKinley, chief of the National Guard, is worried about the future.

The Guard traditionally has suffered budget cuts as wars come to an end, while being forced to use equipment handed down from the Army and Air Force.

But the federal fiscal climate could mean even deeper than normal cuts for the 468,000-strong force of citizen soldiers.

In an interview, McKinley touts the accomplishments of the Guard during the past 10 years of conflict. During that time, its budget has nearly doubled. But he has already been told that current force levels are unaffordable.

“This force wants to be used. It does not want to be marginalized,” he told National Defense. “With cooperation and collaboration in this building, we can find the role of the Guard for the 21st Century in a time of constrained resources and a downsizing of our operations overseas,” he said.

The Guard has proved its ability to integrate with the active-duty force, he said. “I believe we’ve earned the right in this building to have a voice and a role. We’re approaching 700 killed in action over these last 10 years,” said McKinley. “We’ve fought and died alongside the Army and Air Force and therefore we should be able to put our value proposition on the table and be heard.”

McKinley pointed out that preserving the Guard’s readiness costs less than allowing the force to atrophy and having to resuscitate it on short order for another contingency.

“We’ve integrated. We’ve developed. We’ve trained. We’ve equipped 468,000 people who want to participate at the front of the line. Why would we squander that?” he said. “But we know that the nation has fiscal problems. We know there are going to be challenges. We know our services are going to be reshaping their profiles, and we in the National Guard will be part of that discussion.

“I hope that the service chiefs of the Air Force and the Army let us make our case: Let us stay integrated. Let us stay productive. Let us be as capable as we can be in these austere environments,” he said.

“We’re prepared to sacrifice. We are an organization that has lived for centuries on small allocations of money and old, outdated, legacy equipment,” McKinley said.

The Guard will look to save money by closing buildings and facilities that are no longer needed, he said. Then it will take a look at the force structure, and examine the ratio of officers to enlisted personnel.

McKinley argued that Guardsmen, because they are located in every zip code in the nation across 3,300 communities, are a bargain for the country.

“We only pay our people when they work for us … That value proposition, I think, will be a critical factor in the years ahead,” he added.

The Air Guard expects to stay busy operating the Air Force’s unmanned aircraft. A number of Air Guard squadrons have given up their F-16 fighters and KC-135 tankers and transitioned into flying MQ-1B Predator and MQ-1C Reaper remotely piloted aircraft.

“It’s a great mission and the Air National Guard has seven of those organizations now,” McKinley said. “Those organizations are very much integrated with our operations around the world. And I don’t see the tempo ever really coming down much.”

Another area where Guardsmen expect to be engaged is in cybersecurity. “That is an emerging mission that I see as very important to all of us,” said McKinley, who is collaborating with U.S. Cyber Command to figure out ways to contribute. “The civilian-acquired skills that many of our Guardsmen have by working in the computer industry make an ideal match for them to use those same skills in uniform,” he said.

In the realm of homeland defense, the Guard is establishing several new first response forces to contend with natural and man-made disasters. In partnership with U.S. Northern Command and U.S. Army North, McKinley is working to develop domestic all-hazards response, or DART, teams that would assemble “force packages” comprising at least 30,000 Guard and other personnel to support relief missions.

“We believe we have to have that capability in the Guard to fall in under a command-and-control structure that allows us to be very responsive, very quick with a heavy footprint in case we have a natural disaster of the size or scope of a Japanese earthquake,” said McKinley.

The Guard recently participated in a national-level homeland response exercise that simulated an earthquake along the New Madrid Fault Line, the most active seismic zone east of the Rocky Mountains. Scientists say that a large earthquake is overdue in the 150-mile long fault system, which stretches along the borders of Illinois, Tennessee, Missouri, Kentucky and Arkansas.

In addition to the DART teams, the Guard also is working to finish establishing 10 homeland response forces, each consisting of 566 personnel who are ready to deploy within six to 12 hours of a crisis, whether it is a man-made chemical, biological, radiological, or nuclear attack or a natural disaster.  

The Guard also will continue to work with foreign military and response forces in addition to providing agricultural development teams to assist U.S. operations in Afghanistan.

Besides funding and readiness, McKinley also worries about the health of the force. Suicide rates in the Guard are higher than they have ever been, and those units returning from duty are experiencing higher than normal unemployment rates, mostly resulting from jobs that have evaporated with the downturn in the U.S. economy.  

“Those are indicators to me that we’re right up against the capacity levels of which we can continue to effectively serve,” said McKinley.                                           

Topics: Defense Department, DOD Budget

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