Pentagon in for a fight over expected National Guard cuts

National Guard officials are preparing to battle the Pentagon over deep cuts in the state-run military units that the Defense Department is expected to seek in its fiscal 2007 budget and an accompanying four-year review of defense plans and strategies to Congress next month.

With the National Guard already used heavily in operations abroad and missions within the United States, top state Guard officials are arguing that cutting the force could harm the Guard's ability to respond to major disasters on U.S. soil and further tax its troops already stretched thin by operational demands.

In a Thursday letter sent to Defense Secretary Rumsfeld on behalf of the 54 adjutants general, Maj. Gen. Roger Lempke urged that "any plan to reduce manpower and force structure must consider the National Guard's role in homeland security."

Lempke, Nebraska's top Guard official and the president of the Adjutants General Association of the United States, also argued cutting the force would hinder recruiting campaigns and make it impossible for the Guard to grow.

"A permanent drawdown in National Guard strength will remove a military presence from many communities making further dips in recruiting impossible to recover from," Lempke said.

For the Army Guard, a "permanent end-strength reduction can never be restored to 350,000 and the operational reserve remaining will no longer be capable of supporting sustained combat and unit rotations necessary to defeat extended terrorist insurgencies."

A senior Defense official said Tuesday the Army will recommend slicing National Guard end-strength numbers by 17,000 in its fiscal 2007 budget request, with more personnel cuts expected in future years. But the official stressed that the Army Guard's roster already has dropped to roughly 333,000 troops due to recruiting problems that have plagued the force.

"So nobody gets let go," said the official, quickly adding for emphasis: "Key point." The Air Force, meanwhile, is expected to slice the Air Guard by several thousand troops over the next four years.

The Air Force is in the "very early stages of restructuring our force and has not worked out the details outside the aggregate number of personnel reduction that will be required," according to a statement issued Tuesday.

The military's recommended personnel cuts, which also affect active-duty units, are part of a broader effort to trim defense spending without drastically scaling back or delaying the military's sweeping technology transformation programs. Lempke argued part-time National Guard troops are less expensive to maintain than their active-duty counterparts, and as such should not be cut.

"Trained and ready full-time military forces are costly to sustain," Lempke wrote. "The National Guard is the means to mitigate that cost."

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