Analysis: Guard needs more equipment

By PAMELA HESS, UPI Pentagon Correspondent  |  Aug. 21, 2006 at 6:51 PM
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WASHINGTON, Aug. 21 (UPI) -- The Army National Guard is short 20,000 medium-weight trucks and 17,000 Humvees, two items on a long list of equipment that together will cost $21 billion.

Not buying the equipment is not an option, according to Lt. Gen. Steven Blum, the outspoken chief of the National Guard Bureau. After five years of war and decades of intentional underfunding of the National Guard in favor of the active duty military, the bill is due.

The Army has promised to find the money over the next five years, even as it contends with its own war and reorganization cost of more than $17 billion so far. Where the money will come from, absent an enormous boost from Congress -- which already allots the Pentagon more than $400 billion a year, plus about $100 billion annually in war costs -- is still unclear.

"We are struggling to find things to cut," Blum told UPI in an interview.

The bill for the 40,000 trucks and Humvees alone is $6.5 billion. It is currently slated to get only 7,200 additional vehicles by 2008, according to Guard budget documents.

The Guard also needs 33,000 "light weapons" - that is, guns for troops - at a cost of $59 million. It needs 144,000 night-vision devices, for $1.2 billion. It also needs $193 million for chemical agent alarms - a domestic preparedness consideration as the National Guard is supposed to be an early responder in the event of a chemical attack or spill in the United States. It also needs more than 2,000 heavy tactical trucks, for $606 million. Only 329 are currently in the budget to be bought by 2008. It needs 52,000 GPS receivers; just 11,000 are slated to be bought.

It needs UAVS and movement tracking systems for hostile environments. It also needs more prosaic dump trucks and bull dozers, equipment desperately needed for recovery from natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina.

The list goes on, calling for 73 helicopters, 83 water purification systems, 13,000 tactical radios, 36 155mm lightweight Howitzers. It covers 25 "late to need" items that cover not just what has been consumed in the war (in 2004 National Guard troops comprised almost half the troops in Iraq) but what that National Guard has needed, but not received, since well before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

In the year 2000 the National Guard had 70 to 75 percent of authorized and required equipment on hand, and a significant portion of that was not first-line equipment.

"It was substitute equipment that was deemed 'good enough', (but) it was certainly not good enough to go to war," said Blum.

But it went to war anyway, and now the bill is coming due.

The Pentagon made the decision long ago to underfund the National Guard, based on the conception that the Guard was a strategic reserve that would only be tapped for combat when the "big" Army was used up. It would be clear by months or years when that time was coming, so there was breathing room.

"they accepted risk in the reserve component by under-equipping and underfunding the National Guard, because if the country needed (it) they'd have ample time to get us equipment and training," Blum said.

That was fine for years, but when the military switched to an all-volunteer force, and necessarily smaller than a draft force, the reality for the National Guard began to change. Planning and budgeting did not.

"Fast forward to today," Blum said. "The organization has sent 270,000 soldiers to war in the last six years."

To make sure those soldiers had the best possible equipment on hand, the Guard "cross -leveled" -- that is, cherry picked from all units what a deploying unit needed. That further reduced the 70 percent stocks, and much of what was on hand for the Guard to train with and use for domestic missions second-rate hand me downs.

"We've been doing that for six years," Blum said.

For reasons of time, money, and logistics, the units are leaving their equipment in Iraq and Afghanistan for fresh troops to fall in on. What they come home to, then, are units that have only about half the needed equipment on hand.

"I totally support leaving equipment in country," Blum said. "But the unintended consequence is equipment supplies keep coming down ... They are now down to less than 50 percent on average, and there are still significant substitute items below that."

And that equipment is being used. Some 11,000 are on duty in the United States (about half at the southern border) and nearly 70,000 are deployed in support of the wars. Blum believes the need for equipped and trained Guard units will remain high, and raises alarm bells in the Pentagon and on Capitol Hill

"Because of the rate we are using the equipment, the harsh conditions we are operating in, because this is not a short-duration expeditionary venture we're involved in, I personally believe we are in the very early stages of a long and difficult, complex security environment, we should be more ready today than any time ... We're not going to have have time to build this thing up."

The Guard's domestic responsibilities should preclude it from having to absorb equipment shortfalls. Guardsmen are credited with rescuing more than 17,000 people after Hurricane Katrina.

"Everyone saw why you have to have equipment in your hands," he said.

While the Army's elite combat units are on call to respond within 96 hours anywhere on the globe, Blum's forces don't have the luxury of time.

"Ninety-six hours is just four days too late," he said.

"This nation is going to have to make some hard, informed decisions," Blum said. "We owe them our very best cost estimate of what it's going to take to buy active and reserve (forces) to acceptable readiness."

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