Guard chief touts unit readiness but acknowledges stress

The chief of the Pentagon's National Guard Bureau sought to assure lawmakers Wednesday that all Guard units will receive adequate training and equipment for combat deployments, despite what he called a "death spiral of capability" affecting the forces that remain at home.

During a lively exchange Wednesday with members of the Senate Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, Lt. Gen. Steven Blum said he would delay deployments of his forces if he did not feel they were ready for combat.

"Make no mistake about this: No soldier, no unit for the National Guard will go to war unready," Blum said. "It won't happen."

His statements came just days after the Pentagon announced it would send four Guard brigades to Iraq in December -- a decision Blum acknowledged he was partially responsible for.

While the chief, known for his candor, emphasized the Guard was up to the task of continued combat missions, he also acknowledged that ongoing deployments would exacerbate equipment problems at home. On average, states have only 40 percent of their Army Guard equipment.

The Ohio Army National Guard has the most gear on hand -- 65 percent, Blum said. By comparison, the Maryland National Guard, which will soon send 1,400 troops to Iraq, has only 35 percent of its equipment and will send more of it to Iraq for the impending rotation, Blum said.

"It'll go lower," said Blum, a former commanding general of the Maryland Guard. The National Guard estimates that it needs an additional $40 billion over the next six years -- on top of the billions already planned for the Army and Air Guard -- to get its units combat ready.

"I think what's been presented here amounts to a national crisis," said Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md.

During the hearing, Majority Whip Richard Durbin, D-Ill., questioned how units bereft of equipment just before deployment could mobilize quickly for combat overseas.

"You are telling me that the equipment shortfalls not only diminish their ability to respond to a domestic crisis, it diminishes their ability to train," Durbin said. "So if all of this is true and these shortfalls can be documented, to say that each of these units is ready is to suggest some miraculous change between your statistics, which show they don't have the equipment, and their readiness to go into combat."

Blum replied that it is a "matter of applying resources against time" and giving Guard forces enough time to prepare for their missions before deploying. Durbin questioned whether the military is pushing the Guard and Reserves to the "absolute limit."

Blum acknowledged the stress on his force, but argued that the military is watching this very carefully. "Can the force be broken? Yes." Blum said. "Are we broken today? No."

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