WASHINGTON — They are America's hometown heroes: part-time citizen-soldiers ready to lend a hand in emergencies at home and risk their lives overseas. But after years of duty, the Army National Guard finds itself in the middle of a battle over its future.
The debate over how best to fit the guard into the United States' defense strategy has steadily intensified. Among its detractors are active Army officers who believe the reserves should be downsized and the savings transferred to the Army.
The guard and its supporters say it is a vital, economical military resource that must be preserved, at current levels, as a reserve combat force. But critics argue that future conflicts will require the rapid deployment of top-notch troops, so the reserves should be shorn of combat duties, reduced in size, and restricted to providing specialized support functions abroad. The guard, however, would continue its traditional domestic duties.
The outcome of the debate remains unclear. But the guard seems to have the upper hand, partly because it maintains the confidence of the Pentagon's civilian leaders. They are now working on a compromise that rejects claims that the reservists cannot be made combat-ready fast enough to help win two simultaneous regional conflicts - the worst-case scenario under current US defense planning.
Says a senior Defense Department official: "When measured against the active Army, the guard is poor. But, when measured against potential adversaries, it's superb."
The guard is also aided by its massive political clout. Not only is it cherished publicly as the guardian of the nation's citizen militia tradition, its presence in communities large and small in all 50 states makes it an institution prized by politicians as a recipient of vote-generating largess.
"The National Guard is a state resource," says John Hillen, a military analyst at the Heritage Foundation. "There is an awful lot of money and pork that comes along with the National Guard. This is big bucks and thousands and thousands of jobs."
SO sweeping is the guard's influence in Congress that the Pentagon seeks only partial funding for the force in its annual budget request. It knows that lawmakers of both parties will add the rest. A case in point: the proposed fiscal 1997 Pentagon budgets approved by the House and the Senate. While slashing the active Army's funds, both chambers added millions for the guard. While the Pentagon sought no funds for new equipment for the guard, the House added $98 million and the Senate $125 million.
"I'm not going to tell you there is no pork. But everything I asked them for is stuff we need," says retired Maj. Gen. Edwin Philbin, head of the US National Guard Association.
Congress's annual practice of paring the active Army's budget while bolstering that of the guard is fueling demands that the reserve force be restructured. Another is the current defense strategy, known as the Bottom-Up Review (BUR), under which the number of active Army personnel is being reduced by 34 percent to 495,000 between 1990 and 1999, while the guard is being cut only 16 percent to 367,000.
Also driving the restructuring demands are contentions that the Gulf War proved that reservists cannot train to combat proficiency fast enough. Critics say that by the time three guard combat brigades were ready, the conflict was over. "Everyone knows that the guard could not get their advanced readiness units ready in three months, let alone six," says Michael O'Hanlon, a military analyst at the Brookings Institution in Washington.
The compromise plan now being worked on by Defense Department officials is aimed at meeting the active Army's claimed shortage of support troops and reservations about the guard's combat capabilities.
Still, the guard is taking no chances. With his eye on the November elections, Maj. Gen. Philbin warns that 3,500 officers are coming to the guard's annual meeting in September in Washington "to remind their national leaders that the American people across the country still desire and support the 'militia nation' concept as written into the US Constitution."