By James Kitfield and National Journal
July 21, 1997
FORT INDIANTOWN GAP, PA.--Here in the rugged foothills of the Allegheny Mountains, members of the 103rd Combat Engineers Battalion struggle to load a bulldozer onto a trailer in a choking haze of dust. They look like a typical Army unit.
Yet the 103rd Combat Engineers are members of the Pennsylvania National Guard's 28th Infantry Division (Mechanized) on their annual two-week training tour. If you look beyond the standard Army fatigues, you can see both the strengths and the limitations of the nation's citizen soldiers.
The men and women of the 103rd have deep roots in the region. They are soldiers roughly 39 days a year, and business executives, carpenters, truck drivers, construction workers, civil engineers and police officers the rest of the time.
But the assignments undertaken by members of the 103rd during their only extended training for the year--for example, helping upgrade the tank practice area at Fort Indiantown Gap--bears little resemblance to the wartime missions of combat engineers. Scheduling and training-area limitations mean they will rarely, if ever, take to the field as an entire unit. Indeed, the 28th is one of eight National Guard combat divisions the Army says are so superfluous that they don't even appear in any of the Pentagon's war plans.
The strengths and weaknesses of forces such as the 28th Division are now at the center of a heated debate in Washington. In the recently released Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR)--the Pentagon's broad assessment of future manpower and weaponry requirements--defense planners called for cutting Army reserve forces (members of both the Army Reserve and Army National Guard) by 45,000 troops. Those proposed cuts further opened the great divide between the active Army and the National Guard.
Although the Army Reserve and National Guard are both reserves, they are significantly different forces. The Army Reserve, like the active Army, is a federal force in the Pentagon's direct chain of command. Partly because most Army Reserve units are assigned to work with active combat forces in such areas as transportation and supply, they tend to have a closer interaction with active units in training and during special emergencies.
The National Guard, however--although it accounts for nearly all the combat capability in the Army reserves--serves two masters. When not called upon by the federal government, the National Guard works directly for the states. The proposed cutting of 38,000 Army National Guard troops thus prompted fierce opposition from state National Guard Adjutant Generals, and many governors and Members of Congress.
"While we're proud of how the Air Force and Air Guard work together, the Army doesn't seem to have figured out yet how important the National Guard is as a mobile ready reserve," said Sen. Christopher S. (Kit) Bond, R-Mo., co-chairman of the Guard Caucus. "Given that you can maintain a National Guard unit at 25-30 per cent of the cost of an active unit, I think they are going to become increasingly important as budgets contract."
The debate over reserve forces could have a profound impact on the fundamental nature of the American military in the post-Cold War era. In the years since the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Persian Gulf war, some officials say that relations between the Army and the National Guard have so deteriorated that the long accepted doctrine of a cohesive "Total Force" has been threatened. The Army's Total Force is designed to make the most of its three components--the 495,000 active-duty troops, the 367,000 Army National Guard troops and the 208,000 Army Reservists.
The estrangement between the regular Army and National Guard units is so pronounced, however, that Col. Willie Jones, commander of the 103rd, has had virtually no contact with his active-duty counterpart for more than five years. Nor has his unit been activated for a real-world assignment in his 22 years as a Guardsman.
"The problem with combat elements in the National Guard is that there's very little chance that we'll ever get called up for a contingency to use the skills we train for as a unit, and we're not happy about that," said Jones, in civilian life a Philadelphia parole official.
Maj. Gen. Walter L. Stewart Jr., commander of the Pennsylvania National Guard's 28th Division, concurs and asserts that the Army habitually underestimates his unit. The Pentagon "says it would take us a year to get ready for war, which is bogus," he said. "The fact is they don't know how soon we could be ready, or what we could accomplish, because they never ask."
Congress's General Accounting Office (GAO), RAND and the independent Roles & Missions Commission of 1995, however, have all concluded that the Army National Guard is larger than it needs to be. Given the Army's estimate that a National Guard heavy combat division would require nine to 12 months to prepare for war, the Army and Joint Chiefs of Staff continue to resist writing the eight Guard divisions into even their worst-case scenarios, which involve fighting two regional wars nearly simultaneously.
Under a 1996 division redesign agreement, the Army is already turning 12 National Guard combat brigades into much-needed support units. Army officials also note that under a "First to Fight" financing scheme starting from fiscal 1992, the service will have invested $17.4 billion by the end of fiscal 1997 to modernize the Army National Guard, which would include 12 "enhanced" combat brigades.
Unless the Army National Guard agrees to reshape its heavy combat divisions, shedding some of its heavy tanks and armored vehicles, it risks becoming even more irrelevant and underfinanced, according to Army officials. "We know that divisions are the coin of the realm, so the chief of staff of the Army has said to the National Guard that if you will reconfigure the combat divisions from heavy to light infantry, we . . . forever put to rest this argument about their relevance," said Lt. Gen. Jay Garner, assistant vice chief of staff of the Army. Besides making the Guard divisions better suited to present-day missions such as Somalia, Haiti and Bosnia, he says, such a restructuring would also help the Army National Guard cut 28,000 troops, as the QDR requires. "Unfortunately, that proposition has fallen on deaf ears. The National Guard has refused to consider it," Garner said.
A Contentious History
Tension between state militias and the full-time military dates back to the triumph of the minutemen and the birth of the nation. Some of the Founding Fathers had a well-known aversion to the idea of a dominant, professional army controlled by the federal government. After the military mobilization of World War II, the shock of the Korean war and the emergence of the United States as a superpower, however, leaders decided the nation had to have a large standing army.
Tensions of a different sort surfaced during the Vietnam war. Military leaders were angry over the fact that throughout much of the war, President Johnson steadfastly resisted activating reserve forces for deployment to Vietnam to avoid a contentious public and congressional debate.
Stung by the Vietnam experience and facing the imminent end of the draft, military leaders devised the Total Force policy in 1973. The idea was that shifting critical support and combat duties to the Army Reserve and National Guard would make a reserve call-up all but mandatory before other U.S. forces could ever again be sent to fight on foreign soil.
In the first combat test of the Total Force concept during the Persian Gulf conflict of 1990-91, many reserve volunteers were needed. Support units in the Army Reserve and National Guard performed so well that many analysts thought the concept of Total Force was largely validated.
When it came to mobilizing two National Guard combat "round-out" brigades that were to augment active-duty combat divisions, however, the Army balked. After sending the National Guard's 48th Infantry Brigade to the National Training Center during the Desert Shield buildup phase of the conflict, the Army relieved the 48th's commander and said the unit wasn't fit to fight.
Much of the bad blood between the active Army and the National Guard stems from that decision. "Six years later you can still get a heated debate going over whether or not that black eye was deserved, but there's no doubt that the Army implicitly condemned the National Guard's war fighting capability," said Rep. Paul McHale, D-Pa., co-chairman of the House Reserve Component Caucus.
While Army officials privately draw from classified studies to make the point that the brigades were woefully unprepared, National Guard officers continue to assert that they were set up. "That's when much of the present mistrust started, because after [Desert Storm] I became convinced the Army would never call up a Guard combat unit. They foresaw the coming drawdown, and didn't want us to prove we could in fact fight," said Maj. Gen. Edward J. Philbin, executive director of the Washington-based National Guard Association.
Who'll Get Cut?
It was against that backdrop of mistrust that the Army underwent a fundamental reassessment of its post-Cold War force structure and needs as part of the QDR. Noting that the active-duty and Army Reserve forces each had been reduced by more than a third since the end of the Cold War--compared with only a one-fifth reduction for the Army National Guard--Army leaders proposed that the National Guard take the lion's share of an additional 45,000-member reduction in reserve forces by 2002. Army active-duty forces were to be cut an additional 15,000 during that time.
Convinced that the Army had purposely excluded them from the QDR's final decision-making process, the Guard leadership has lashed out with an unusually vitriolic campaign to reverse the QDR. National Guard officials argue that with the end of the Cold War, the United States should return to its historical reliance on state militias. They point to evidence indicating that a National Guard unit is anywhere from 60-80 per cent less expensive than its active-duty counterpart.
"We're being widely depicted as recalcitrant . . . , but we're talking about American citizens fighting for the right to bear arms and possibly die for their country," said Maj. Gen. William A. Navas Jr., director of the Army National Guard Bureau in the Pentagon.
Army officials insist, however, that America's onetime reliance on a small active-duty cadre and state militias is an anachronism. Today's requirement that the military remain forward-deployed--and the demands of short-warning crises--are notably straining even the full-time military at its present size and level of training.
"If you look at the nature of the conflicts we've confronted since the 1970s, you'll see that they are generally very short, extremely violent, come-as-you-are types of conflicts," said Maj. Gen. Johnny Mack Riggs, an assistant deputy chief of staff of the Army. He notes that his service also has roughly 100,000 troops stationed overseas and 35,000 engaged in various contingencies. "That's the world we face, and we can't deal with it without a robust and well-trained standing force."
To avoid a confrontation with Congress and to quell the increasingly public feud, Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen ordered the Army to hold an "off-site" meeting in June between active Army, National Guard and Army Reserve leaders. Because the highest- ranking National Guard officer in the Pentagon is a three-star general who was not present among the four-star Joint Chiefs of Staff during the final deliberations on the QDR, National Guard leaders believed they would be better represented in a more informal off-site forum that included senior representatives from the active military, the National Guard and Defense Department civilians.
To avoid opening the off-site meeting to the public as required by sunshine laws, the Army initially proposed activating senior National Guard attendees to federal duty for the private meeting. National Guard representatives saw themselves walking into a trap; in a federal role, they feared, the National Guard could be ordered to accept terms dictated by higher-ranking Army generals.
"It's sad that the National Guard Association seems to see itself more as a political than a military entity, because until that perception changes, we're not going to be able to solve these parochial problems between the active and reserves," said Rep. Stephen E. Buyer, R-Ind., the co-chairman of the House Reserve Component Caucus, who has argued for cuts in the Army National Guard force structure. "Hell, some of us made the point to Secretary Cohen that if we had generals who were refusing to show up at meetings, we'd ask them to leave their stars on the desk."
At least initially, however, all three sides emerged from the June off-site saying they had largely settled their differences. Their deal called for the active-duty Army to make all of its 15,000 troop cuts during the next three years as planned, while the National Guard will give up 17,000 troops and the Army Reserve 3,000 during that period.
While Army leaders insist they have not backed away from plans calling for a further reduction of 21,000 Army National Guard troops by 2002, Guard leaders clearly left the off-site meeting--at Fort McNair in Washington--with other ideas.
"Our position is that the 17,000 cut in the National Guard will bring us to about 350,000 troops, which we think is basically the level necessary to have a viable National Guard," Navas said. Instead of cutting the Guard further, he says, the Pentagon should give more missions to the less expensive reserve forces.
For Army leaders who thought the issue was settled--and who have smarted from a barrage of attacks on their integrity in bargaining with the National Guard--signs that the Guard was once again off the reservation provoked outrage.
"First, I categorically deny that the National Guard did not adequately take part in the QDR, and I briefed their senior leaders personally many times," said Garner, the senior Army representative at the off-site meeting. In Garner's opinion, the National Guard also signed up for the additional cuts of 21,000 as the QDR outlined and Defense Secretary Cohen endorsed.
"The problem I have with this whole issue is that we rely very heavily on our reserve components. Because of a barrage of letters and public accusations by the National Guard Association, however, what filters down to our citizen soldiers is this big active-component-versus- reserve-component controversy," Garner said. "To me, it's almost seditious, and I think it's being implemented by a narrow set of individuals that don't have the true interests of the nation at heart."
Fit to Fight?
At the heart of the controversy is a disagreement over what can and should be expected of part-time warriors. Citing a study conducted by the Institute for Defense Analysis for the Texas National Guard's 49th Division (which by its own admission relied on several favorable assumptions), the National Guard believes combat divisions can be made ready to fight in four to six months, far below the Army's estimate of nine to 12 months.
A number of independent assessments, however, have concluded that the National Guard's figures are overly optimistic. While Texas's 49th Division has all three brigades located in the same state, for instance, several other Guard divisions are "irregular," meaning they are made up of brigades from different states and they rarely, if ever, train together.
"We used a very comprehensive methodology, and basically found a big difference between active and National Guard combat units in terms of individual skills. After a mobilization, active soldiers might have to hone some skills, but the reserve soldiers were having to learn new skills," said Rich Davis, GAO's director of national security analysis. National Guard combat units were also asked to complete far fewer tasks, he says, than their active-duty counterparts.
"This argument that if you just put enough resources into Army National Guard divisions [then] they could replace active-duty divisions always fascinates me," said Gen. Riggs. "To me it indicates a complete misunderstanding of what the demands of this business are all about."
National Guard officers maintain that the Marine Corps fielded reserve tank units that performed in some of the heaviest fighting of Desert Storm. Marine Corps officials point out, however, that they have the highest ratio of active-duty commissioned and noncommissioned officers permanently assigned to reserve units; that both active-duty and reserve officers enter the corps through the same basic training program (unlike the National Guard); that the Marines have a much smaller reserve component to support; and that most of the units dispatched to the Persian Gulf were relatively small.
The Air Force is widely credited with seamlessly integrating its active component, Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve into a Total Force. Not only do reserve pilots fly a majority of the cargo-hauling missions, but Air National Guard fighter squadrons routinely fly alongside their active-duty counterparts in combat.
Perhaps counterintuitively, some experts say that the Air National Guard's job of providing trained aircrews is significantly less complex than the Army National Guard's assignment of providing fully trained, major ground combat units up to the division level.
"In terms of individual crew training, flying an aircraft is more difficult than driving a tank. But in terms of collective unit training, where you have to synchronize all the various components of a mechanized unit, the Army National Guard's training job is much, much more complex," said Tom Lippiatt, senior analyst with RAND.
Perhaps the most striking difference in the relationships between the armed services and their respective reserve components, however, remains one of attitude. In casual conversation, senior Air Force and Navy officers will talk about their 20 fighter wings or 350 ships, without ever thinking to separate out active and reserve units or crews. As anyone who has spent time with the Marine Corps knows, there is no active Marine, Marine reservist or ex-Marine--just Marines.
"I've thought about this issue a great deal, and I'm convinced the Army has to overcome this rivalry . . . that exists between the active and National Guard components. You will never achieve unity of command or commonality of purpose when officers who wear the same uniform fundamentally distrust each other," said McHale.
As budget pressures continue, it seems increasingly likely that the Army National Guard will have to reconfigure some of its excess combat units. For its part, the Army will have to bridge the gap in trust by providing, to the Guard's enhanced combat brigades and other units, the frontline equipment, resources and joint training necessary to make them full partners. The alternative is to remain a house divided.
By James Kitfield and National Journal
July 21, 1997