WASHINGTON – With thousands of reservists and National Guard members serving across the globe and at home — the largest activation since the Korean War — lawmakers want to make sure these part-time forces aren't stretched too thin.
"As the war in Iraq progresses, our guard and reserve forces have served proudly alongside our regular forces," said Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., who is pushing for an additional $1 billion in new hardware for the guard and reserves in the fiscal 2004 budget.
Landrieu and Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., are calling for a full-scale report by the General Accounting Office to assess equipment needs, which they said have not been addressed adequately in some time.
"We know that the demands we are placing on our guard and reserve components will only increase," said Chambliss. "It is important that we begin now to take a serious look at these issues and determine the best course of action necessary to prepare and equip our guardsmen and reservists for the challenges ahead."
Those challenges have already included deployments to Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan, Operation Iraqi Freedom, engaging in the global war on terror and continued missions in Kosovo and Asia.
At home, the National Guard has been responsible for providing airport security, reacting to suspected bio-chemical threats, protecting critical infrastructures and other homeland security detail. The reserves function domestically by working in military hospitals and doing terror response training.
As of April 16, 223,203 National Guardsmen and reservists are serving in active duty. That is comprised of 148,701 Army National Guard and Army reservists; 11,748 Naval reserves; 37,356 Air National Guard and Air Force reservists; 20,986 Marine Corps reserves and 4,412 Coast Guard Reserves.
According to Landrieu and Chambliss, 364,000 reserve and guard members have been called to serve six times between 1990 and 2002. That's twice as many activations and nearly double the 200,000 service members called between 1953 and 1989.
But the budget for equipment procurement for reservists and guard components has remained almost stagnant since 1996 — around $1.5 billion — while the total defense budget was hiked from $274 billion in 1996 to more than $345 billion in 2003 to match emerging threats, officials said.
"This is the biggest call-up since the Korean War and we haven’t done anything to their budget," said Lindsay Ellenbogen, a spokeswoman for Landrieu. "Something clearly needs to be done."
For her requested $1 billion increase, Landrieu has identified a wish list that would be useful to guard and reserve installations, including those in her home state of Louisiana. The request calls for $223 million for Army reserve Black Hawk helicopters, $98 million for Air National Guard F-15 engine kits, and $48 million for A-10 targeting pods for the Air Force reserves.
Other items include $29 million for a P-3 aircraft improvement program and $57 million for high frequency radios for the Army reserve’s special operations teams.
Officials from each of the guard and reserve branches were reluctant to comment on specific legislation, but nonetheless said any new equipment is good news for everyone.
"It is refreshing, very refreshing, to have someone in the Senate to come out and stand for more equipment for the reserves and the guard," said Ike Puzon, director of legislative affairs for the Naval Reserve Association, noting that Naval reservists make up 18 percent of the Navy’s forces but operate under a separate budget from the Navy.
But Reginald Seville of the National Guard Bureau cautioned against using a broad brush to describe each branch's funding needs as dire, pointing out that the Army National Guard had received a number of increases in the 2003 fiscal budget.
He added that he has no doubts that the guard is well equipped -- personnel and otherwise -- "to engage in both fronts," international and stateside.
Puzon said he too believed the forces were up to any challenge, but said it is always an uphill battle to get the "latest and greatest equipment," in order to keep up with their counterparts in the full-time active duty forces.
"What would we have done if North Korea had launched a missile over Japan on March 30?" Puzon asked, referring to the first week of Operation Iraqi Freedom and the challenge of fighting on more than one war front at the same time.
"How can you keep a reserve and National Guard and not give them what they need?" he asked.
Even before the war in Iraq and the challenges it placed on the U.S. military, the guard and reserve were suffering from shortfalls in manpower and financing, according to Army National Guard Lt. Gen. Russell C. Davis.
Davis wrote in his fiscal 2003 posture statement that "the demands placed upon the National Guard have grown, stressing the ability of our full-time forces to support [expanded] missions. The additional capability required to fulfill our traditional role in homeland security further exacerbates the problem of keeping pace."
While the federal government funds much of the equipment and personnel expenses through the states, it is the responsibility of the states — since the Guard functions as a state entity — to take care of the 3,000 facilities in 2,700 communities. That’s about $350 million in annual maintenance costs, said Davis.
Ellenbogen said it appears that Congress is willing to listen, as dozens of bills being pushed through various committees now range from compensating deployed reservists and guard members to helping make college loan payments and getting better equipment in the field.
"We need to realize there are different stresses in the system and there are specific costs involved," she said. "We hope to start seeing real work here."