THE first National Guard brigade to be called to active combat duty is crashing through Iraqi-style fortifications, dismounting from Bradley fighting vehicles, and assaulting mock-Iraqi troops here in the closest terrain the United States has to that of Saudi Arabia - the desert sands of the National Training Center (NTC). When and if the Persian Gulf war turns into a ground campaign, US Secretary of Defense Richard Cheney will decide whether or not the 48th Infantry Brigade of the Georgia National Guard is ready to supplement the 415,000 soldiers already deployed in the Gulf. Of those, tens of thousands of reservists are rear-area support troops serving in supply, transportation, and medical jobs. If deployed, the 48th Brigade will see combat.
Besides sheer numbers of troops needed, at issue for Mr. Cheney will be the readiness of these Guard units as well as the ``total force'' policy adopted in 1973 by the military after compulsory service was abandoned.
``The idea was to round out active-duty forces with reservists and guardsmen so that no war would be fought without the reserves,'' says Maj. John Wagstaffe of the NTC. Observers say the policy was meant to draw civilians into combat forces as a way of assessing the national mettle early in a crisis. The 4,500-plus members of the 48th Brigade include college students, police officers, mechanics, fire-fighters, civil service workers, at least one school-board member, and a high school principal.
``The decision to activate the National Guard early in the crisis reflects the administration's appreciation of the strategic and political consequences of not doing so during the Vietnam War,'' says Alan Sabrosky, senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Most American wars have relied overwhelmingly on civilian militias that evolved into the Guard, he says - a tradition essentially abandoned in the Vietnam War, in which the draft was relied on with disastrous political consequences.
``By reverting to pre-Vietnam tradition, the administration is placing both the country and the Congress on notice that the American people should be prepared for major sacrifices in a major war.''
But the most obvious reason for the policy is cost. The National Guard provides more than 450,000 troops with an annual budget of $6 billion - averaging $13,000 per soldier or one-seventh the $100,000 yearly cost of paying, training, and equipping a soldier in the active Army.
``The government has poured a lot of time, effort, and money into this `round-out' concept,'' Major Wagstaffe says.
Yet there are doubts whether units that practice their skills only six weeks a year - and are on average far older than active-duty counterparts - are ready for the front lines. Besides the private worries of active-duty officers that part-timers might not be up to snuff, a 1989 General Accounting Office report listed Guard deficiencies such as inadequate training and lack of critical equipment.
Rep. Les Aspin (D) of Wisconsin, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, has called Operation Desert Storm ``a laboratory test'' in finding whether or not reserve units are fully capable of combat.
``These kids really know how to fight,'' says Lt. Col. Scott Wallace, senior armored task force trainer at the NTC. Some are veterans, some long-term guardsmen, and some are experiencing their first military training of any kind in these desert war games that utilize harmless laser guns instead of live ammunition.
``Their problem is command and control - how to put things together as a coordinated unit,'' says Colonel Wallace. ``In 40 days here, they'll know as much as anyone.''
When the nation's first big chance came to test the ``round out'' concept in August, the 48th was passed over. The parent division which the 48th was supposed to supplement - the 24th Mechanized Infantry Division - was sent to Saudi Arabia, but the Guard was held back amid controversy.
Robert Ensslin, president of the National Guard Association, said the US military's round-out policy would ``definitely be wounded'' if units such as the 48th were not deployed to Saudi Arabia. (Also activated have been the 155th Armored Brigade of the Mississippi National Guard - to train here in March - and the 256th Infantry Brigade of the Louisiana National Guard, to follow).
The Army's official position was that the Guard units were not called up because they could only be used for 180 days. President Bush last week gave Secretary Cheney the executive order extending the call-up period to two years.
``The US military is expanding its authority to keep the National Guard in place until the conflict is over,'' says James McKenney, a military specialist at Wichita State University. He says the primary use of the Guard in World War II, Korea, Vietnam, and Panama has been in noncombat skills such as civil affairs and public service. ``With the cutback in the military in recent years, the US has been forced to place more emphasis on the Guard's use in combat,'' Mr. McKenney says.
``I want to go to Saudi Arabia, but I'm glad I'm getting this chance to train,'' says Specialist 4th Class Howard Whitt, 35, from Birmingham, Ala. In five days of mock battles against opposing forces that spend 250 days a year in the desert, Specialist Whitt has ``died'' four times. He says he's learning how to clear a trench, dismount armored vehicles, and how to coordinate ground attacks with supporting forces. ``I'm also learning the range of our weapons versus theirs and how to judge distances in the desert.''
The normal NTC rotation for troop training here is 20 days. Training for the 48th is 40 days. Additional instruction for Saudi Arabia includes donning gas masks, hoods, and rubber boots to fend off chemical attacks. ``Getting a feel for the battlefield under these added constraints is very difficult,'' says Wallace. ``But at the end of 40 days, I'd put this group alongside any that has come through here.''
If the 48th is not deployed, Mr. Ensslin says the action will be equivalent to a ``no confidence'' vote on the readiness of the Guard.