GAO: Guard may lack gear needed for domestic crises

Congressional investigators have found that the Defense Department does not adequately track National Guard equipment needs for domestic missions, raising questions about whether the state-run units have adequate supplies to respond to disasters and emergencies on U.S. soil.

In an unreleased reported dated Jan. 26, the Government Accountability Office concluded that defense officials have recognized the need to track the National Guard's stateside stocks of vehicles and other gear available to respond to domestic disasters, but those efforts have not yet yielded reliable information on the equipment units have at their disposal.

"Until DOD reaches agreement on a specific approach for measuring readiness for domestic missions and requirements are defined, it will remain unclear whether the Guard is equipped to respond effectively to the consequences of a large-scale terrorist attack or natural disaster," according to the report.

Over the last several months, many state Guard leaders have complained that their units took their best equipment with them when they deployed to Iraq, leaving the personnel at home short of trucks, radios and other equipment needed for domestic missions.

Indeed, Lt. Gen. Steven Blum, chief of the Pentagon's National Guard Bureau, told Congress last year that at least two-thirds of his units in the United States are not combat-ready.

The Army already has pledged $21 billion through 2011 to modernize Guard units. But GAO indicated in its report that Army leaders have not specified how much of that equipment will stay in the United States.

"In the absence of a specific plan that outlines how Army National Guard equipment will be allocated among non-deployed units, state National Guards may be hampered in their ability to plan for responding to large-scale domestic events," the GAO report said.

In its written response to the report, the Defense Department said it partially agreed with a GAO recommendation to report to Congress on the National Guard's ability to respond to natural disasters and terrorist attacks.

"Readiness reporting and tracking is critical to ensuring the execution of the [Defense] Department's Strategy for Homeland Defense and Civil Support," wrote Thomas Hall, assistant secretary of Defense for reserve affairs. "This includes the readiness to perform domestic missions by all ten military components, not just the Army and Air National Guard."

But Hall bristled at other GAO recommendations, including one directing the Army secretary to file a report to Congress on how it will buy equipment for non-deployed Guard units. Such a report is "unnecessary," Hall said, adding that those discussions already occur for all parts of the military during the budget process.

The National Guard, which is commanded in each state by governors when not activated for federal service, has become a front-burner issue for many lawmakers concerned that the soldiers -- most of whom hold full-time civilian jobs -- have been overburdened by call-ups to active duty and deployments to Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere abroad.

Lawmakers in both chambers plan to reintroduce Tuesday the National Guard Empowerment Act, legislation that would raise the stature of the National Guard Bureau chief with a promotion to four-star rank and membership in the elite Joint Chiefs of Staff.

The legislation, which has significant bipartisan support, would also give the Guard new authority to identify disparities between reserve and active forces and validate its own technology and equipment needs.

Despite strong support for the legislation last year, supporters failed to get a watered-down version of the bill through the fiscal 2007 defense authorization conference. Instead, lawmakers instructed the independent Commission on National Guard and the Reserves to examine the legislation and provide recommendations in a report to Congress on March 1.

The commission plans to hold its last hearing on the issue of elevating the National Guard leadership Wednesday, with testimony expected from Army Secretary Francis Harvey and Joint Chiefs Chairman Peter Pace, both of whom opposed last year's bill.

This year's bill has some new provisions that would force greater accountability in Army and Air Force procurement for the National Guard, and improve planning and operational relationships between the Defense Department, National Guard Bureau, U.S. Northern Command and state governors.

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