Changing of the Guard

The National Guard swiftly came to the country's defense on Sept. 11, but some disagree over its future role in homeland security.

The minutemen would have been proud.

National Guard fighter jets were in the air over Washington, D.C., within minutes after the Pentagon attack on September 11. Troops were on the streets in hours. And over the months since, an estimated 20,000 Guardsmen and -women have flown patrols or stood watch over America's airports, bridges, borders, power plants-and the Capitol itself-an operation estimated to have cost $829 million to date. The contribution of these part-time citizen-soldiers has been visible and undeniable.

It was also ad hoc. The sight of military jets and Humvees patrolling U.S. cities was strikingly novel. But the forces themselves were the same old units. Maj. Gen. Richard Alexander, executive director of the National Guard Association of the United States, said the Guard responded "in a traditional way to a nontraditional threat."

The National Guard is primarily funded, organized, equipped, and trained for fighting conventional wars overseas. In the rush to respond to 9/11, however, the Guard has had to learn new skills. A combat engineer would end up protecting an airport, or a cannon-loader would be dispatched to the Winter Olympics, with only a few days' familiarization with the special requirements of the new homeland role, be it running a metal detector or working with local police. Otherwise, the troops fell back on the general-issue skills-patrolling a perimeter, guarding a gate, handling a rifle-that they learned in basic training. The Guard tackled an unfamiliar problem, but with its traditional tool kit.

And Guard leaders are adamant about keeping that kit, instead of switching to new tools for their new role. They want their funding and organization to continue to be based on the requirements for operations overseas-and they want to continue defending the homeland with "spare" forces designed for missions abroad. "I totally disagree," Alexander said, with reallocating the Guard's resources to focus on securing the homeland at the expense of supporting the regular military in wars abroad-what Alexander called the Guard's "primary constitutional role."

But outside the Guard leadership, there are calls for change. Both active-duty officers and civilian experts were calling for the Guard to focus on the homeland long before 9/11. And in late June, Senate Governmental Affairs Chairman Joe Lieberman, D-Conn.-a potential presidential candidate-delivered an entire speech around the idea that "we need to build new and different National Guard units ... specifically trained, equipped, and deployed" for domestic defense.

For now, the Guard is getting applause from all sides. But from a distance, you can hear the rumblings of a stormy debate over its future role.