WASHINGTON – Defense Secretary Robert Gates has rejected a proposal to let governors command active duty troops responding to disasters, officials said Wednesday, though the Pentagon will grant National Guard leaders more authority to coordinate with other military and homeland security agencies.
Gates told Congress Wednesday he had approved 20 of the 23 changes recommended recently by an independent commission in an effort to improve Guard funding, equipment and coordination in emergencies.
His comments came just days after tornadoes in Kansas highlighted deficiencies with Guard equipment and gaps in planning that were exposed by the Gulf hurricanes more than 18 months ago.
Gates did not reveal which recommendations from the Commission on the National Guard and Reserves that he rejected. But two defense officials familiar with the matter told The Associated Press he didn't agree with the panel's suggestion that governors be allowed to direct active duty troops responding to emergencies in their states.
The officials requested anonymity because Gates' final decisions on the commission report have not yet been released.
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.
The commission in its March 1 report, concluded that states and governors are not adequately considered in decisions relating to the Guard. Gates concurred with the panel's other proposals to have the governors work more closely with the Pentagon.
He told the Senate Defense Appropriations panel Wednesday that the department is "trying to deal with some of these Guard problems. And we will be more than happy to work with you all, with the governors association, with the adjutants general to get at this problem."
Specifically, he said, he approved making the chief of the National Guard a four-star general, rather than a three-star.
According to the officials, Gates also agreed that the head of the National Guard — currently Lt. Gen. H. Steven Blum — should be made an adviser to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and other top military commanders.
In its March report, the commission concluded that the National Guard and Reserves don't get enough money or equipment and are left out of important planning for national emergencies. The panel 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.
Many of the 23 recommended changes are largely administrative, aimed at improving coordination between the various federal agencies.
Gates also rejected a proposal that would require that at all times either the commander or deputy commander of U.S. Northern Command be a Guard or Reserve officer, and a change that would elevate the Guard to a joint military command.
During the Senate hearing, lawmakers expressed repeated concerns about whether Guard units in the states are adequately prepared and have all the needed equipment to respond to disasters.
"These Guard and Reserve have answered the call when they've been sent abroad. But we also need them to answer the call at home if they're needed," said Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt.
Gates said there is nearly $22 billion in the budget for the Army Guard between 2008-2013.