Washington Nearly 90 percent of Army National Guard units in the United States are rated "not ready" - largely as a result of shortfalls in billions of dollars worth of equipment - jeopardizing their ability to respond to crises at home and abroad, according to a congressional commission that released a preliminary report Thursday on the state of the U.S. military reserve forces.
The report found that heavy deployments of the National Guard and reserves since 2001 for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and for other anti-terrorism missions have deepened shortages, forced the cobbling together of units and hurt recruiting.
"We can't sustain the (National Guard and reserves) on the course we're on," said Arnold Punaro, chairman of the 13-member Commission on the National Guard and Reserves, established by Congress in 2005. The independent commission, composed mainly of former senior military and civilian officials appointed by both parties, is tasked to study the mission, readiness and compensation of the reserve forces.
"The Department of Defense is not adequately equipping the National Guard for its domestic missions," the commission's report found. It faulted the Pentagon for a lack of budgeting for "civil support" in domestic emergencies, criticizing the "flawed assumption" that as long as the military is prepared to fight a major war, it is ready to respond to a disaster or emergency at home.
From Virginia and the District of Columbia to Indiana and New Mexico, National Guard units lack thousands of trucks, Humvees, generators, radios, night-vision goggles and other gear that would be critical for responding to a major disaster, terrorist attack or other domestic emergency, according to state Guard officials.
The equipment shortage extends to Gulf Coast states such as Louisiana and Mississippi - devastated in 2005 by Hurricane Katrina - where Guard units have only a fraction of what they would need to respond to another large-scale disaster.
The Louisiana Guard, its gear depleted by Iraq and Katrina, is short of Humvees and trucks such as high-water vehicles critical for a major evacuation. "We are really concerned about vehicles," said Lt. Col. Pete Schneider, a spokesman for the Louisiana Guard. "We would have enough for a small-scale issue ... maybe a Category 1 tropical storm we could handle - an event that doesn't involve massive flooding or massive search and rescue," he said. But for bigger disasters, Louisiana would need help from other states.
Mississippi lacks trucks and is relying on contractors to fill gaps in engineering vehicles, according to state Guard deputy Maj. Gen. Ike Plyant. "We will make do with what we got," he said.
In the Washington area, Guard officials worry about a catastrophic attack. In the event of "a very large ... chemical, biological or nuclear incident in the national capital region, I would need every truck I was authorized, and we don't have that," said Col. Robert Simpson, director of the joint staff for the Virginia National Guard. "We are definitely short trucks, all wheeled vehicles," as well as radios, bulldozers and other gear, Simpson said. The state Guard could handle ordinary contingencies such as "bad winter weather," he said.
Other state Guard leaders voiced similar concerns. "What keeps me up at night is, I think I am able to surge ... for the normal disaster, but if I needed to deploy every bit of my soldiers and airmen, I know for a fact I do not have enough equipment," said Indiana National Guard head Maj. Gen. R. Martin Umbarger.
Army National Guard units in the United States have on average about half of their authorized stock of dual-use equipment, needed both for fighting wars and for domestic missions, according to a recent Government Accountability Office report. The National Guard estimates that it would require $38 billion for equipment to restore domestic Army and Air National Guard units to full readiness. The Army has budgeted $21 billion to augment Guard equipment through 2011.
Since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the use of U.S. military reservists has risen from about 12.7 million days of service in 2001 to an estimated 63 million days in 2006. The current increase of U.S. troops in Iraq is expected to require the call-up of as many as four National Guard combat brigades beginning early next year.
But while the 830,000-strong selected reserves make up more than a third of the total U.S. military, they receive only 3 percent of the equipment funding and 8 percent of the Defense Department budget, the report said.
In 2006, Army National Guard units preparing to deploy had to borrow on average one-third of their people and 60 percent of their equipment from a dozen other units, making for a less cohesive force, the report found.
National Guard units deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan have been required to leave behind large quantities of gear in the combat zone. Partly as a result, 88 percent of Guard units in the United States are now so poorly equipped that they are rated "not ready" to deploy, the report said, citing the National Guard Bureau chief, Lt. Gen. H Steven Blum. Forty-five percent of the Air National Guard is also "not ready," according to Guard data.
The commission called for granting governors more power to handle emergencies, including allowing them to command not only National Guard forces but also federal troops responding to emergencies in their states. The commission also called for the chief of the National Guard Bureau to be elevated one rank to four-star general.
In commenting on legislation known as the National Guard Empowerment Act, the commission disagreed with a proposal to make the head of the National Guard a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, in part, it said, because it would complicate the chain of command. Lawmakers backing the act criticized the recommendations as tepid.
The report also said Guard recruiting and retention remain "highly problematic." Fewer former active-duty military personnel have joined the reserves over the past 10 years - they made up 38 percent of the Army National Guard recruits last year, compared with 61 percent in 1997. Polling data for youths and their parents also show that favorable views of service in the Guard and reserves have declined since November 2001, the report said.
The commission is scheduled to issue its final report in January.