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The Destruction of the National Guard

“It bought us the time we needed.”

Lieutenant-General James Lovelace, USA

“It,” for General Lovelace, the Army’s Deputy Chief of Staff for Operations was the deliberate decision to throw more Army National Guard and Army Reserve units into Iraq’s dirty war-cum-occupation in 2005. It has cost some communities, some states, dearly.

So why did the Army need time? In a word: “transformation.” Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld is leading a Pentagon-wide reconfiguration of the way each of the four military services organizes (structures) units to make them more responsive in crises. In this instance, the Army wanted to restructure two active duty divisions from three ground combat (armor, infantry, airborne, airmobile) brigades to four prior to deploying the units back to Iraq at year’s end. It also shifted thousands of soldiers into combat, transport, and military police jobs and “civilianized” logistical and other troop support positions previously held by uniformed personnel.

(For the longer term, the Army is in the middle (2003-2007) of expanding the number of active-duty brigades from 33 to 43. It would like to add an additional 5 brigades to the active rolls, resulting in a total of 87 (48 active-duty and 39 National Guard) combat brigades.)

Who covered the gap (for clearly there would have been a gap in the coalition occupation force)? In three words: “the National Guard.” In fact, according to Lieutenant-General H. Steven Blum, Chief of the National Guard Bureau, in April 2005, the Guard had eight combat brigades in Iraq–more than 50 percent of U.S. combat strength in-country. Even in World War II, the percentage of Guard combat units never exceeded 50 percent of the total fighting combat force.

Over the summer, the Guard’s profile decreased to 40 percent. Anticipating an increase in violence by the insurgents in the run-up to the October 15 referendum on the new Iraqi constitution, the Pentagon decided to increase the military’s “footprint” by 14,000 over the “steady-state” total of 138,000. Because commanders on the ground garnered 12,000 troops by extending tours of units originally scheduled to leave Iraq before the vote and bringing in others ahead of schedule, only 2,000 “new” (unprogrammed) troops were required. Nonetheless, nearly half–75,000–of the 152,000 U.S. military personnel are reservists.

And the human cost? The numbers and the causes of the fatalities are on the World Wide Web. So are the names. So are the trends. From ten percent of the fatalities during the “major combat” phase in March and April 2003, National Guard and reserve losses stand at more than 30 percent for the first 10_ months of 2005. In August, 56.5 percent of U.S. fatalities (48 of 85) were reservists. In September, 27 of 49–55.1 percent–were reservists. And at October’s midpoint, seven of the 33 U.S. dead in Iraq–21.2 percent–are from the reserves.

In an October 5, 2005 report titled “An Analysis of the U.S. Military’s Ability to Sustain an Occupation in Iraq: An Update,” the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) concluded that

“the Army National Guard combat brigades have been used
at levels that cannot be sustained. Of the National Guard’s
current 15 “enhanced” separate brigades, 11 have been deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan over the past two and a half years. In addition, the Army has deployed three brigades from National Guard divisions to Iraq at some point, there will be no National Guard brigades that can be deployed without violating DoD’s mobilization standard.”

CBO did not stress another factor hastening the day when there will be no deployable brigades: lack of people. Volunteers for military service are in short supply, especially for the Army. The 2005 recruiting results as a percentage of the established goal were: active Army, 92%; Army Reserve, 84%; Army National Guard, 80%. Two other components came up short: Navy Reserve at 88% and Air National Guard at 86%.

The question hanging like the sword of Damocles over plans and programs is: “what will be the effect on security of the constitutional referendum and the parliamentary election December 15?” The Army leadership seems to be betting that violence in Iraq will go down and the competence of Iraqi security forces will increase fast enough to allow the Pentagon to reduce the “steady-state” U.S. force level before the Army runs out of reserve component units. The next troop rotation will see more active duty combat brigades as participation by reservists will fall from seven to two brigades.

When that happens, states will be better positioned to respond to emergencies, which has been until now the principal way Guard units have been used. As it is, when Hurricanes Katrina and Rita hit the U.S. Gulf coast, elements of the Louisiana and Mississippi National Guard were in Iraq and thus unavailable to help with relief efforts in their respective states. The Pentagon insisted that enough National Guard troops were available to handle normal post-hurricane operations. But the extent of the levee breaks in and around New Orleans was not normal. As the extent of the damage came into focus, National Guard units from other states were brought in from every state except Hawaii. In addition, the Pentagon dispatched 7,500 active duty soldiers from Fort Hood, Texas.

That’s just about the same number of Mississippi and Louisiana National Guard troops–with high-water capable vehicles, generators, and other equipment useful in natural disasters–that were in Iraq.

Col. Daniel Smith, a West Point graduate and Vietnam veteran, is Senior Fellow on Military Affairs at the Friends Committee on National Legislation, a Quaker lobby in the public interest. He can be reached at: dan@fcnl.org

 

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