Guard's balancing act: Should it change?

A year-long commission will look at the force's increasing responsibilities, abroad and at home.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

The increasing demands on the Army National Guard appear at last to be moving both Congress and the Guard toward tough decisions about the future of the force.

For the Guard, the past 12 months have been something of a worst-case scenario dreamed up by the most diabolical of Pentagon planners. Buffeted first by the war in Iraq and then by the relief effort for hurricane Katrina, the Guard has had to manage perhaps the two most ambitious operations in its long history, which dates back 369 years to the days of breeches and powdered wigs.

It has been a trial by fire for a force that has changed dramatically in recent years. No longer is the Guard kept far from battle, as it was during the cold war. Nor is its mandate of emergency response secondary in post-9/11 America.

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Yet amid last year's repeated deployments to Iraq and the Gulf Coast arose a question that is only now being fully addressed: How can the Guard strike a balance between its foreign and domestic missions without overburdening its citizen-soldiers?

"Katrina and Iraq created real pressure to look at the Guard - how we're resourcing it and how we're managing it - and whether there's a better way," says Michèle Flournoy, an analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies here.

This month, Congress convened a year-long commission to look at those issues - from rotation schedules to budget figures. But perhaps more important, say experts, is the need to find a voice for the National Guard in the Pentagon, where it has long been seen as something of a kid brother - making do with all the Army's hand-me-downs and taking the biggest hits at budget time.

The past year has shown more clearly than any PowerPoint presentation that the Army National Guard is becoming a more integral and active part of the nation's security. That has created new stresses.

Though the fall of the Soviet Union has led to lower military spending and a smaller force, the military has actually been used increasingly often - in places like Iraq and Afghanistan. The way to do more with a smaller Army is to use all of it, including the Guard and Reserve, the Pentagon has decided.

In contrast to the cold war, when the National Guard was held away from the fight as a hedge against catastrophe, today's "total force" concept calls on the Guard and Reserves to fill the gaps of a smaller military. So they have in Iraq and Afghanistan.

But the Guard and Reserve are intended to be places for part-time soldiers who have separate lives as principals, bankers, and contractors. As the military leans more heavily on its reserve elements, it threatens to overwork its citizen-soldiers and undermine the very notion of a "reserve."

Moreover, the Guard is presented with the unique challenges of its dual mission. Guard units are controlled both by their governor and by the president of the United States. In the past, when the Guard stayed at home as a strategic reserve, governors could turn to them whenever they needed troops for disaster relief or security.

Now, President Bush wants the Guard to take a more active role overseas. Meanwhile, governors want the Guard to focus more on its homeland-security role. The question of who is in control has become a federal-state fault line. "The balance of power between federal and state is a very difficult issue," says Arnold Punaro, chair of the congressional commission.

In many respects, the answer to all these problems lies in one solution: predictability. The goal is to deploy Guard members for federal missions once every six years on a clear rotation schedule.

"It makes things easier for families, and it makes things easier for governors because they know [what to expect] if you have predictability," says John Goheen of the National Guard Association of the United States, an advocacy group in Washington.

The deeper issue is changing the perception of the Guard within the Pentagon. During the cold war, the thinking went like this: As the troops of last resort, the Guard will always be the last force into battle. Therefore, their needs are the least pressing. The result was that the Guard was chronically underfunded and received the active Army's leftovers.

In today's total force, however, the Guard can be on the front lines from the very beginning, making their needs almost as great as those of the active Army. "The Guard is undergoing some fundamental changes in mission, but the systems under which we operate haven't undergone the same changes," says Gen. Roger Lempke, president of the Adjutants General Association of the United States, a group of the commanding officers of the country's National Guards.

Oftentimes, money and equipment earmarked for the Guard will never arrive. When the Pentagon said last month that it was planning to pay for only 333,000 Guard troops - not the 350,000 funded by Congress - Guard leaders said they had not been consulted about the decision. Congress and the Pentagon recently agreed on the full funding, if the Guard recruits the full number of troops.

Some also hope that the congressional commission can help the Guard find a high chair at the Pentagon table. "Every time we get into tough budget choices, the Guard gets left out of the process," says Mr. Goheen. "The Guard is needing more of a voice."

The commission's report, including recommendations, will be submitted to Congress and the Defense secretary next March.

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