WASHINGTON – After years of depending on the National Guard to round out deployments to Afghanistan and Iraq, pending Pentagon plans to adjust troop levels and combat brigades just don't make sense, says the general representing all of the state Guard leaders.
Maj. Gen. Roger P. Lempke, president of the Adjutants General Association of the United States says he is convinced, even after recent briefings from top U.S. Army officials to assuage his concerns, that changes in force structure for the Guard will ending up hurting that military branch.
"They gave us no new information that would change our minds," Lempke said after visiting with U.S Army officials this week to discuss the proposed 2007 budget for the Army National Guard and Air Guard.
"I haven't talked to anybody — outside of the Army — who can understand why we would need these cuts right now," he said.
Defense officials say that reorganization of the force structure will result in more needed support brigades and not put any additional strains on the combat side.
"Contrary to what some had heard, we are not cutting the number of brigades. The Guard will remain at 106 total brigades, 28 brigade combat teams and 78 support brigades of varying types. The Army Reserve will retain 58 supporting brigades. The only thing that will change is the mix of these components," Army Chief of Staff Peter Schoomaker said.
He added that the Army is willing to pay for additional citizen soldiers if the Guard is able to recruit beyond the authorized level.
A recent letter to Congress from Army officials outlining the agenda for President Bush's proposed fiscal year 2007 budget, being introduced next week, notes that the Army would be asking for a reduction in the authorized number of Guard troops from 350,000 to its current level of approximately 333,000. The Army is also asking for a reduction in authorized combat brigades to 28 from a planned 34. The guard now has 15 fully engaged combat brigades.
The budget request will seek a reduction in Army Reserve forces as well, from its authorized level of 205,000 down to 188,000, which was the number available at the end of 2005.
"We have every intention of building active Guard and Reserve units that are fully, manned, trained, equipped and led to perform the most likely missions that we will face in the 21st century operating environment," Schoomaker told reporters.
Ahead of the budget request, Pentagon officials have been briefing Capitol Hill staff and reporters, trying to assure them that their plans to adjust the National Guard and Army Reserve forces should not be construed as cuts.
"There is this thought out that that the Army is cutting something, when they are not," one defense official said
But supporters of the National Guard, which in the first three months of fiscal year 2006 surpassed its recruiting goals for the first time in years, say the Army is cutting the legs out from under a branch of the service that contributed 50 percent of the force in Iraq at the peak of the war and is being pressed upon more than ever to assist in homeland and civil defense responsibilities.
"This has happened, ironically, after one of our busiest years since World War II … and one of our most complicated years possibly in our history," said John Goheen, spokesman for the National Guard Association of the United States .
According to Jack Harrison, National Guard Bureau spokesman in Washington, D.C., before the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, the National Guard had 4,000 personnel deployed overseas. Currently, that number is 80,000, with approximately 60,000 in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Defense officials say the Army has already dropped its reliance on the Guard in Iraq from its prior high. Currently, the Guard makes up 20 percent of the force there, down from 50 percent last summer.
The National Guard is state-run and frequently called into service by governors in times of natural disaster. President Bush federalized the Guard to help out in Iraq and Afghanistan and for homeland defense. Since the United States went to war overseas, the equipment available for homeland and civil defense at home has dropped to 34 percent of its full capacity, said Harrison.
Critics accuse the Army of reducing troop and combat brigade levels to pay for equipment and to compensate for other parts of the military that are more acutely feeling the strains of war. Opponents to cut say they also believe it won't be so easy to get more money for new recruits if the numbers eventually do swell beyond current levels.
Despite the reassurances from the military that it can handle the cuts, members of Congress, governors and National Guard officials are complaining that they were not involved in the budget requests and want a say before any adjustments go forward.
Sens. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and Ben Nelson, D-Neb., both members of the Senate Armed Services Committee, proposed a resolution last month that is now supported by 40 senators. It calls on the Pentagon to ease the National Guard's equipment problems and to consult the states and Congress before taking any action on troop levels.
"[Sen. Nelson's] concern is the [National Guard] is over-relied upon in Iraq — on combat operations and security and everything else — and they are over-relied upon at home for hurricanes and blizzards and everything else," said Nelson's spokesman David DiMartino. "If you can make the argument that this [budget request] won't impact their ability to meet their obligations, then okay, but the argument hasn’t been made yet to the Armed Services Committee."
Members of the House Armed Services Committee are also asking questions. Ranking Member Rep. Ike Skelton, D-Mo., sent a letter to Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld last week asking about the budget request.
"I question the rationale" for the authorized troop reduction levels, Skelton wrote.
Others on Capitol Hill say members are waiting for full briefings and for the actual budget request.
"You don't know what you don't know," said one Republican aide who asked not to be identified. The aide was part of a recent staff briefing by Army officials and said several questions were left unanswered. "[The briefing] did not offer a lot of answers in terms of why the Army will need to do this or why the country needs this now."
Army Secretary Francis J. Harney attempted to answer some of these questions in a press conference last week. He started off by saying that news reports on the budget request were "not informed," and that the decrease in combat brigades was "not budget driven."
"We're growing the Army. We're growing our operational capability," he told reporters. "There are no cuts. You can call it adjustment based on strategic review and analysis."
On Thursday, Rumsfeld said change is difficult on everyone, but when all is completed, those who worried about the force structure of the Guard and Reserves will be happy.
"Change is hard for people, and we understand that. Unfortunately, the world has changed under us and we have to make changes. ... What we're basically doing to the Guard is, we're maintaining the levels, for all practical purposes, and we are changing skill sets within the reserve component — the Guard and Reserve — so that the kinds of skill sets that will exist there will be vastly more valuable to the governors and the states for the kinds of homeland security, or various missions that occur, than they are today," the defense secretary said.
"I mean, what good is air defense or artillery or tankers, if you have a Katrina or a Rita or a fire of some kind, a forest fire?"