National Guard Seeks to Expand Active Role In Military (UPDATED)

By Dan Parsons

The National Guard, best known for its commitment to stateside operations, could continue to expand the active role it has played for the past decade as officials argue that guard troops are a cost-effective alternative to full-time soldiers.

While the National Guard does not wish to abandon its domestic disaster relief efforts, cleaning up after hurricanes is not all it does anymore, said Lt. Gen. Joseph  Lengyel, vice chief of the National Guard Bureau.

“It is not what they want to be and it is not what they are resourced to be in the future going forward,” Lengyel said June 17 during a military strategy forum held at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).

The United States has the best-equipped and best-trained guard troops, said Lt. Gen. William Ingram Jr., director of the Army National Guard. Guardsmen and women are trained in the same schools as their active duty counterparts, he said.

Disputes over military funding arise daily in the Pentagon as arguments are being made for replacing a portion of the active force with guard and reserve troops. Not only would this better balance the mixture between the two components, but it would also be a more cost effective option, Guard officials said at the forum.

One can maintain three to four reserve component units for the same amount as one active component unit when not on active duty.  The Guard must find the right mix that meets our strategy and the nation can afford said National Guard Chief Gen. Frank  Grass. He feared that without the balance of reserve and active components, the U. S. military would have to resort back to draft soldiers in response to future conflicts.

 “We have the greatest military in the world and it is because it is an all volunteer force,” he said. “If we can’t find that balance and we start giving up reserve components and we get into a major operation, where are those folks going to come from?”

The National Guard began over 300 years ago as state militias and has transformed during the wars of the past decade from being mainly strategic reserve forces to operational forces that can be used overseas.

The National Guard was first mobilized after 9/11. Following the attacks, 150 installations, depots, and storage sites for ammunition had to be secured, requiring a swift increase in manpower, Grass said.

“Before 9/11 we were a very open military,” he said. “Any of you could drive right through the gates of Ft. Myers, or you could drive right up to the general’s house if you wanted to.”  

The National Guard is based in close to 3,000 communities across the nation. Through these troops, the American public can stay connected with the military, said John Hamre, president and CEO of CSIS.

In January 2003, close to 21,000 Army National Guard troops were given less than a week to pack for deployment to Iraq, where they were sent to support their active-duty counterparts, said Ingram.

There are 358,000 Army National Guard and Air Guard troops, many of which have been deployed at least twice since 2003, Grass said. The Army National Guard has mobilized its guardsmen a total of 510,000 times, including multiple deployments. In comparison, the Air Guard has mobilized its airmen a total of 290,000 times.

Lengyel said that the National Guard’s capability to assist in stateside operations is enhanced by their experience serving on active duty overseas. Hundreds of thousands of guard troops are currently serving with their active duty counterparts, 20 percent of whom are deployed overseas. Nearly 3,500 guard soldiers are serving in communities today responding to the effects of tornadoes, flooding, on the southwest border — including fighting the wildfires in Colorado.

Guard officials believe their part-time soldiers can be of use in cyber security operations, as well. According to Ingram, there are specialized units in the Army National Guard that specialize in cyber security — a major emerging mission set for the entire Defense Department. In addition, several National Guard units are trained in information technology.

Lt. Gen. Stanley E. Clarke agreed with Ingram. He said that cyber security operations had a natural place in the guard.

While many Guard troops have broken out of the “weekend warrior” stereotype, guard officials wish to find an opportunity for their troops to play active roles in the future operations.

“Because of the investments that we’ve made in the National Guard, I am an optimist in that we have a tremendous tool to use in our reserve component going forward,” said Lengyel. “Never have we been more ready and never have we been more capable.”

Correction: Original story misstated comparison in costs between active duty and reserve components. Also, misstated number of reservists fighting fires in Colorado.

Topics: Defense Department, DOD Policy

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