May 1, 2007  

On guard

Commission outlines fundamental problems facing reserve component

Commission reports in Washington, D.C., are sort of like hookers at a Mardi Gras celebration. From a distance, they entice the inexperienced or unaware, but rarely do they look good up close, under the light. Yet, for once, a federal commission has overcome the usual institutional inertia and dull bureaucratic posturing to speak the truth in clear and concise prose.

The Commission on the National Guard and Reserves was established by statute by the National Defense Authorization Act of 2005. Congress chartered the 13-member body to conduct a comprehensive, independent assessment of our reserve components. Led by Arnold Punaro, a former director of the Senate Armed Services Committee and a retired Marine Corps Reserve major general, the panel’s expressed mission is: “To identify and recommend changes in policy, law, regulation and practice to ensure that the National Guard and Reserves are organized, trained, equipped, compensated, and supported to best meet the national security requirements of the United States.”

Congress directed the commission to deliver three separate reports to both armed services committees. The panel’s analysis was informed by 12 days of public hearings, more than 300 interviews with officials and experts, and analysis. The National Guard commission’s second product was issued March 1 with little fanfare. The report is lucid, bold and framed within a solid understanding of today’s dynamic strategic context. It readily acknowledges the serious state of deterioration in today’s Guard and reserve posture.

The commissioners well recognize the need for a broader and more integrated approach. They informed Congress that they see the fundamental problems facing the National Guard requiring a broader approach than simply examining the reserve component, as the implementing legislation requires. An expanded strategic framework must not focus only on the National Guard Bureau, “but also on the parent services of the National Guard, the organizational structure of DoD as a whole, the role of United States Northern Command (NorthCom), the role of the states and their governors, and the role of other government agencies involved in homeland security missions.”

The commission’s first step in ensuring that the National Guard and reserves are properly organized, equipped, trained, compensated and supported was to fully understand the strategic environment in which they must operate. The Punaro panel’s grasp of today’s volatile context cited the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction as a growing threat across the globe, including to the U.S. homeland. Other challenges include the “long war” against violent Islamic extremists, pandemic disease, and natural disasters such as hurricanes, earthquakes and floods. The panel acknowledged that manmade or natural disasters can threaten populations in magnitudes that can equal or exceed the losses incurred by war. The commission also listed failed states and the potential for an emerging world power to engage the U.S. and our allies in traditional conflict.

The panel failed to identify any clear priorities among these threats, but it did acknowledge the composite of federal, state and local capabilities that constitute the full order of battle for domestic crises. The commission also recognized that its investigation and recommendations needed to:

• Meet the higher priority placed on domestic missions.

• Improve the advice the secretary of defense receives about reserve matters.

• Increase cooperation among the Defense Department — including the National Guard Bureau and NorthCom — the Department of Homeland Security and governors on homeland matters.

• Strengthen the National Guard’s ability to perform its overseas and homeland missions.

• Increase the influence of states and their governors to enhance security at home.

The commission makes a number of critical and candid observations about the current and projected readiness of the Guard and reserves:

• The National Guard and reserves are at a high operational tempo, playing a key role, and performing well, across an array of missions.

• From fiscal year 1997 to 2006, the number of prior active-duty personnel enlisting in the reserves has steadily decreased in all reserve components.

• The long-term viability for both recruiting and retention remains highly problematic.

• Increasing levels of financial inducements have been necessary to meet recruiting and retention goals for both active and reserve components.

• Resourcing of the reserves has not kept pace with the substantially higher operational tempo.

• The equipment readiness of the Army National Guard is unacceptable and has reduced its capability to respond to major contingencies, foreign and domestic.

In a candid conclusion that pulled no punches, the commission noted a gap between the Pentagon’s rhetoric and capability. Although the current Strategy for Homeland Defense and Civil Support states that securing the U.S. homeland is “the first among many priorities,” the Defense Department has not accepted that this responsibility requires planning, programming and a budget.

The Guard has reported that it is almost $40 billion short in equipment thanks to intense operational commitments since the Sept. 11 attacks. The commission also concluded that the role of governors has been slighted and recommends Congress create a Council of Governors through which governors could provide direct input on National Guard issues to the executive branch. The priorities of the states and their governors are not adequately considered in the Defense Department’s policy and resourcing decisions related to the National Guard, even though governors are, and likely will continue to be, the leaders of most domestic emergency response efforts involving the National Guard.

Several governors are concerned about how depleted their equipment readiness is, and how exposed several states are for any major storms or disasters. Additionally, while the Defense Department has declared that the Guard is now the nation’s operational reserve, it has failed to ensure that such a change is sustainable. “We believe that the current posture and utilization of the National Guard and Reserve as an ‘operational reserve’ is not sustainable over time,” the commission concluded.

This conclusion has profound implications for the active Army and the entire Army modernization and training plans.

While the commission boldly criticized the Defense Department for not adequately supporting the Guard, and especially for its domestic support tasks, the panel failed to note the lack of a strategic planning guidance from either the National Security Council or the Homeland Security Council to aid the Pentagon in making budgetary decisions and tradeoffs. The bifurcation of responsibilities at the apex of our national security architecture, and the lack of a unifying strategic guidance, need to be rectified. This could be the subject of further investigation in the commission’s final report.

Second, the commission should be commended for giving a stronger role for governors in inputting requirements, and for enhancing their authority over state and federal assets in time of crisis. There are significant command-and-control implications that flow from this finding, and state and regional task force models should be examined for potential experimentation. Additionally, the commission might consider looking at the leaders of the Army National Guard, Air Guard and Coast Guard as a domestic equivalent of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under DHS as a means of increasing integration and maximizing operational requirements for the Governors Council or the Homeland Security Council.

Third, I would expect the Army’s planned rotational readiness plan to be subjected to greater scrutiny and specific counterproposals. The commission should not wait for its proposed requirements inputs to NorthCom and the Governors Council to take root. The commission accurately noted the plan’s shortcomings, as well as the fact that nearly 90 percent of the National Guard is presently rated. This plan dramatically shortchanges the domestic role of the Guard and reduces available resources to local officials for domestic tasks in order to efficiently and routinely field Guard units for overseas presence and war-fighting roles. Such an approach fails to appreciate rising domestic requirements and the complexity of fourth-generation warfare.

The commission now moves on to its third and final report, which is due next year. During this concluding phase, the commission should examine more responsive regional structures rather than rely solely on NorthCom. Additionally, dedicated National Guard units for domestic missions are required, as determined by a study conducted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies earlier this year as part of its impressive “Beyond Goldwater-Nichols” project. Creative designs for new domestic security brigades are warranted and should be explored.

Today’s reserve component represents one unsung defense transformation achievement. Its performance and sacrifice over the past six years demonstrates the wisdom of the founding fathers and Congress in providing for a hedge against strategic surprise and strife. With this commission’s insights and clear-eyed logic, we can ensure that tomorrow’s Guard and reserves are just as ready for the expanding missions of the 21st century.