OKLA. CITY —
Senior U.S. military leaders and Congress have some difficult decisions to make about the size and composition of our military. The Budget Control Act and subsequent reductions to defense spending will force the military and political leaders to make some tough calls in the near future about how limited resources will be allocated in the coming decade across all the services. This is especially true for the active Army and the Army National Guard.
The plentiful resources the military enjoyed for more than a decade as we waged war in Iraq and bring the war in Afghanistan to a conclusion are being replaced with budget cuts. A reduced Department of Defense budget has created a debate between Pentagon officials and the National Guard about force structure and how the reductions in spending will be applied to the Regular Army and the Army National Guard.
We shouldn’t go back to the days when the Guard was a seldom-used strategic reserve. And while no one is saying that’s what they want — how the cuts are administered will say a lot about how top Army brass views the Guard today.
Whatever decision is made, it must be based first and foremost on ensuring our ability to protect our homeland and accomplish our national security interests. From that starting point, we must proceed along a path that is both fiscally responsible and absolutely ensures our men and women in uniform are highly trained and properly equipped to accomplish whatever our nation asks them to do.
There are two differing schools of thought about what is needed in terms of future force structure. Some senior Army officials believe it’s a mistake to shift some of the responsibility for ground combat forces to the Army National Guard and they are vehemently opposed to the Guard assuming additional peacetime responsibilities in this area. While there are practical arguments in both camps, I believe some of this concern isn’t based on today’s reality, which is the Guard is now highly trained and readiness levels have never been higher. Unfortunately, it appears that some senior leaders would rather not debate the issues, but would rather push the Guard aside and relegate us back to “weekend warriors” in order to save force structure in the active component.
Prior to the first Gulf War in 1990, and even afterward in some circles, senior level Army officials doubted the combat effectiveness of some National Guard units. While some Guard outfits did in fact struggle with preparing for combat more than two decades ago when the U.S. removed Saddam Hussein’s Iraq Army from Kuwait, the ineffectiveness of a few units seemed to stain the overall reputation of the whole in the minds of some leaders.
Some 20 years later came 9/11 and the Guard rightfully joined our nation’s response to terrorism. While all units are different in terms of ability, there can be no doubt the National Guard fully proved itself during the past decade as it served alongside regular Army Soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan, whether that was in a combat-support role or actually in fighting units. Some who once thought it was fashionable to discount the abilities of the reserve and Guard components could no longer do so as the Citizen Soldier performed admirably and with distinction.
More than 63 percent of the National Guard has deployed to either Iraq or Afghanistan and 37 percent has deployed multiple times, according to National Guard Bureau data. No other state has deployed more Soldiers per capita than Oklahoma since 9/11.
Having served in Iraq alongside thousands of great Americans, you can’t tell a difference between active duty and a guardsman these days. More than one-third of our Oklahoma Citizen Soldiers have deployed multiple times and many of them have been to both Iraq and Afghanistan defending and fighting for our nation.
There is a tremendous amount of experience in the National Guard today and this certainly isn’t the Guard of decades ago when we only trained 39 days a year.
Of upmost importance to the national treasury and taxpayers, it costs billions less to field comparable Guard units to active duty units. Active duty Soldiers live in subsidized housing and many draw retirement benefits for life beginning in their late 30s and early 40s. Traditional Guardsmen don’t earn housing allowances and don’t receive retirement pay until they reach the age of 60 under current rules. Multiple studies have shown that a National Guard Soldier costs about a third of an equivalent active duty Soldier.
In the coming weeks, military leaders will try to reach a compromise and I’m confident that will happen if we have a full and honest debate about the effectiveness and value of the Army National Guard. However, I am in no way diminishing the importance of having the best Regular Army we can afford. A highly trained, modernly equipped and an adequately manned active duty fighting force is absolutely critical to our national security. Our men and women serving on active duty installations and in warzones around the world deserve the full and complete commitment of our nation and its financial resources.
Throughout our history we have grown our military to respond to our needs during armed conflict and then when those conflicts come to conclusion, we’ve taken aggressive and sometime drastic steps to rollback the cost of a larger force. Many times we’ve destroyed readiness in the process, failed to modernize our force and broken our commitment to our men and women in uniform by eliminating the resources they need to be properly trained. It is not in our national interest to go back to being the hollow force of the 1970s and early 1980s.
The nation has heavily invested in the Guard during the war effort and it would be a mistake on many levels to let our readiness and preparedness slip away. Our troops are highly trained and better equipped than they’ve ever been.
In this extremely difficult economic period, it doesn’t make sense to do anything that would reduce the effectiveness of the force we’ve already achieved, especially when the Guard is so cost effective. The past decade has shown that the Department of Defense can rely heavily on the reserves and National Guard and it can continue to now. Early conflict requirements can be met by active duty forces - with the Guard joining the fray, especially ground forces, a short time later.
Beside the federal mission, National Guard units in every state and territory are routinely called upon to respond to the emergency needs of their fellow citizens. The domestic response capabilities of our Guard units shouldn’t be diminished or discounted. Oklahomans know first-hand how important it is to have a fully capable, properly equipped and professional force to assist first-responders after natural and even man-made disasters.
It is in the mutual interest of both the active Army and the Army National Guard to work together to find solutions that make sense for the long-term stability, readiness and effectiveness of our force. It won’t be easy for either side, but we must approach this from a win-win perspective. In the same way we worked so effectively together in Iraq and Afghanistan, we should put all the options on the table and figure out how we can have the most effective military with the dollars we have available. It may take some out of the box thinking, but I know we can get it done.
The Guard knows it’s not immune from cuts, but it’s time we recognize the tremendous cost savings the National Guard provides while being a valuable component of our overall national security. Doing so will allow us to continue to field a capable force that meets our country’s needs while getting the most from the taxpayer dollar. Just because our most senior military officials seem more comfortable with a large standing garrison-based force, doesn’t mean it’s the best solution.
It’s important that we have an honest debate about the force mix that protects our nation, allows us to assert our military influence around the world where we must and at the same time doesn’t break the treasury. For more than a decade we have shown that we can maintain a highly trained and ready force in the Guard. To reduce the Army National Guard would be a mistake without carefully analyzing our national security needs and the fiscal advantages the Guard provides.
My fellow citizens, this is really not a debate about whether we need a strong military. Far from it, we obviously do. But, we must decide how we can maintain our defense capabilities that meet our needs with the resources we have available. And the Guard is undoubtedly an important part of that solution.
MAJ. GEN. MYLES L. DEERING is the adjutant general for Oklahoma. He wrote this piece as an open letter to Oklahomans.