WASHINGTON – The National Guard and Reserves don't get enough money or equipment and are left out of important planning for national emergencies, an independent panel concluded Thursday, long after the Iraq war and Hurricane Katrina exposed serious stresses on the services.
The report from the Commission on the National Guard and Reserves compounds earlier criticism of the Bush administration's response to the devastating hurricane that struck the Gulf Coast in August 2005. The administration also is still struggling to better manage the reserves nearly four years into the Iraq war.
The 151-page report found a significant lack of communication between reserve officials and other military leaders, the Homeland Security Department and U.S. Northern Command, which is responsible for the military's defense of the U.S. homeland.
Calling those failures unacceptable, panel Chairman Arnold Punaro said in an interview that federal agencies must get past their turf battles to better protect the public.
"This is unacceptable. The American people would find it unacceptable," said Punaro, a retired Marine Corps general. "These are not problems that have just cropped up in the last two years or five years. These are issues that have been pretty much ignored and glossed over for decades."
The panel, which was created by Congress, also criticized the Pentagon for not budgeting or planning specifically for civil support missions, such as domestic disaster response, because they are viewed as extensions of wartime preparation.
"This is not a sustainable course, and their capability to do their mission will deteriorate over time if it's not changed," Punaro said. "The thought that if we are capable of doing the away game, we can do the home game, we believe is a flawed assumption."
He told reporters Thursday that if there is a chemical, biological or radiological incident, "we're going to need mass decontamination, we're going to need mass medical. ... That capability is not there in sufficient quantities to deal with those scenarios."
Members of Congress, meanwhile, criticized the commission for not going far enough in its recommendations., Sens. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and Kit Bond, R-Mo., said they will continue to push for their legislation, which gives the Guard chief budget authority and the power to buy equipment, and also makes that person a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
The senators said the panel endorsed only halfway measures to solve the Guard's problems. "Their recommendations are thin soup," said Leahy.
And Rep. Tom Davis of Virginia, who is the ranking Republican on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, said that while the commission recognized the challenges that face the guard, "admiring the problem isn't enough. The Commission's recommendations for the most part won't address the issues they acknowledge."
Guard and Reserve troops have been under increasing strain since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, serving in Afghanistan and Iraq while also patrolling the border with Mexico and responding to hurricanes and other natural disasters. During parts of 2005, the citizen soldiers made up nearly half of the U.S. forces in Iraq, with some facing repeated deployments.
At the same time, Guard units have struggled to get the equipment and training needed to go to war, often swapping armored trucks, radios and other equipment between the states to meet battle and disaster requirements.
In what likely will be one of its more controversial recommendations, the report said governors should be given more command authority over active duty military troops responding to local disasters. In previous situations such as Hurricane Katrina, military leaders have worked side-by-side with governors, but have maintained command of their active duty troops.
"We believe that without giving governors a greater voice, and without giving them a greater ability to bring all the assets of our government to bear, particularly in the immediate aftermath of any kind of incident, that we're putting our citizens and property and our economy at greater risk," Punaro said.
The panel outlined recommendations that would elevate the status of the Guard to become more of a partner with other military and homeland defense agencies. It would make the National Guard chief a four-star general and a direct adviser to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and his top commanders.