WASHINGTON – National Guard officials said Monday that recruiting has accelerated so much in recent months that they expect to expand the Guard even as the Bush administration proposes to shrink it.
The National Guard Bureau, the Pentagon office that administers the Guard, issued a statement outlining a recent turnaround in recruiting and predicting that it will continue to rise this year. The Guard is "aggressively working" to reach the 350,000-troop level by the end of the current budget year on Sept. 30, it said.
The Guard now has about 333,000 soldiers, which is the number the administration proposes to pay for.
It is unusual for a military organization like the Guard Bureau to publicly suggest it is moving in a direction that appears to differ from the administration's. Any talk of cutting the Guard is politically sensitive because Guard units are controlled by state governors except when they are mobilized by presidential order.
In his 2007 budget proposal to be sent to Congress on Feb. 6, President Bush would pay for a Guard of 333,000 soldiers, compared with its congressionally authorized limit of 350,000. Administration officials say that is not a cut because 333,000 reflects the actual number of soldiers now in the Guard, which has been well under its authorized size because of a deep recruiting slump, even though it has been budgeted for 350,000.
In the 2005 budget year that ended Sept. 30, the Army National Guard fell 20 percent short of its recruiting goal. The active-duty Army fell 8 percent short and the Army Reserve missed its goal by 16 percent.
Army Secretary Francis Harvey has said that if the Guard is able to grow beyond 333,000, the Army would shift money from elsewhere in its budget to pay for the extra soldiers. A spokesman for Harvey, Lt. Col. Thomas Collins, said Monday he did not have figures to show what it would cost to grow to 350,000.
"We would not make the Guard pay for it," Collins said.
In its statement Monday, the National Guard Bureau emphasized recent gains on the recruiting front. In the final three months of 2005, the Guard signed up 13,466 recruits, compared with its goal of 12,605. It was the first time since 1993 that the Guard exceeded its goal during the fall quarter of the year.
Mark Allen, a National Guard Bureau spokesman, attributed the improvement to a new advertising campaign, a large increase in financial incentives and a near doubling of the number of recruiters, from 2,700 to 5,100.
The administration's plan to pay for a smaller Guard has stirred opposition in Congress and among Guard advocacy groups such as the National Guard Association of the United States, which represents current and former Army Guard and Air Guard officers.
John Goheen, a spokesman for the association, said Monday his group agrees with the National Guard Bureau that recent gains in recruiting may enable the Guard to increase beyond its current troop strength of 333,000.
Goheen said his group opposes Bush's proposal and disputes the administration's claim that it does not amount to shrinking the Guard.
"If we have units that correspond to 333,000 personnel, we're going to have fewer units," he said. "We're going to close armories, we're going to have less of a presence around the country. That's just reality. We call that a cut. Congress is calling it a cut."