National Guard to undergo major overhaul

Lt. Gen. Steven Blum, one month into his tenure as the new chief of the National Guard Bureau, announced Friday that the 466,000-member institution will soon begin a wide-ranging reorganization that will affect personnel in every state, territory and the District of Columbia.

Under the plan, which Blum was to discuss with state adjutants general at a meeting in Columbus, Ohio, on Sunday, two-thirds of the Guard's state headquarters offices would be eliminated and hundreds of troops would likely be reassigned to new positions in units facing personnel shortfalls.

"We are no longer a Cold War strategic reserve," Blum told reporters Friday at a Pentagon briefing. "We have really got to adjust to the new modern realities."

The National Guard, which has a proud history that predates the Constitution, has both state and federal responsibilities. The Defense Department trains and equips Army and Air National Guard units across the country for military operations, but state governors maintain control over those troops when they are not serving in a federal capacity. Governors rely on National Guard troops to provide vital assistance during natural disasters and periods of civil unrest, and they have increasingly turned to the Guard for help in boosting security against terrorism. Those same troops are subject to federal call-up, however, which can complicate planning for both state and federal officials. Currently, about 150,000 Army and Air National Guard troops are deployed on military missions, primarily in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Blum is particularly sensitive to the increased demands now being placed on the National Guard both at home and abroad. Before assuming the top position at the National Guard Bureau he served as chief of staff at Northern Command, the Defense Department's newly-established organization devoted to homeland defense.

"We need to change the way we think," Blum said. "It doesn't mean that we will walk away from our traditional war-fight role. We will leverage existing capabilities so that we are able to defend the homeland, whether we have to defend it as an away game, abroad, or whether we have to do it right here in our homeland."

The reorganization will begin by eliminating 108 headquarters offices across the country. Right now, each state essentially has three headquarters: a state office, an Army National Guard headquarters, and an Air National Guard headquarters. "That's too much bloat, and we can no longer tolerate that," Blum said. In the coming months those redundant headquarters will be consolidated, with each state maintaining a single, joint Army and Air Force headquarters.

In addition, the National Guard will improve its ability to respond to chemical and biological threats, Blum said. "By the end of this year we will have chem-bio capable units that can do mass decontamination, that can do urban search and rescue, that can identify agents, that can advise the incident commander and build on an incident command system and help them with their command and control, that can bridge communications between DoD communication systems and local first responders," he said.

This enhanced capability will grow from the 32 Weapons of Mass Destruction Civil Support Teams the National Guard currently maintains to respond to such threats.

Officials in the office of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld are studying further changes to the mix of skills and capabilities across the active and reserve component forces, which, in addition to the National Guard, include federal Reserve forces for each of the military services. The Reserve units differ from the National Guard in that they do not have state functions, but operate solely to support the active military force. Like National Guard troops, they are activated for military service by presidential call-up.

Since the break-up of the Soviet Union in the late 1980s and the end of the Cold War, Defense officials have debated the future role of the National Guard. Pentagon plans to significantly cut and realign the force in the mid-1990s were scaled back after the politically well-connected Guard fought the changes on Capitol Hill. But the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 and the resulting security requirements at home and abroad have altered the political climate.

Blum said he was confident that the adjutants general, whose support will be critical, would endorse the plan: "They are trained military professionals. They understand their Constitutional base. They will rise to the occasion, and we will do the right thing."

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