30 August 2005

The Future of the National Guard

States across the nation are litigating Air Force National Guard base cuts mandated by the Base Closure and Realignment Commission (BRAC). New Orleans and much of the Gulf Coast is hurting right now because Guard troops usually deployed to help in times of natural disaster in Iraq. These things are happening because the National Guard is a hybrid institution. It is both the modern incarnation of the state militia and a reserve force of the active duty military, the Army and the Air Force alike. There are 350,000 soldiers in the Army National Guard, and more than 100,000 in the Air National Guard.

President Bush, and men like him, are the reason those troops are in Iraq. In the wake of Vietnam, military planners were determined to continue the status of the national guard as a war dodge. But, as "Homeland Security" (damn I hate that phrase) becomes an issue in a way that it hasn't been for decades or more, it may be time to revisit the ambiguous status of the National Guard. The time has come to rethink the Guard's role.

Under the authority of a state governor, the National Guard mostly responds to natural disasters and to civil disorder that is beyond the ability of local police to handle. They can also be called upon to enforce the law, when local authorities are unwilling, as they did in Little Rock, a duty the active duty military is forbidden from undertaking. This is for good reason. People who live civilian lives 28 days a month, 327 days a year, who tend to be a bit older and more mature than active duty troops right out of high school, are far more likely to exercise good judgment in handling a protest that has become a riot or hungry hurricane victims looting food from abandoned stores. A decade living in foreign military bases can remove you from the context you need to understand those situations.

The armament and training appropriate to these missions is very different from the armament and training appropriate to the other mission of the National Guard, which is to serve as a reserve part of the active duty Army and Air Force, which seems to be the primary objective now, based on the way we use the National Guard in the current foreign wars that the U.S. is fighting, and based on the way that they are armed.

Even the worst domestic riot does not call for tanks or artillery to be deployed in the United States, and they are worthless in national disasters. Yet, most national guard units are armor units (or mechanized infantry, which amounts to the same thing in the modern military). Likewise, while national guard units may find transport and reconnaisance helicopters even more essential for their mission than the regular Army does, it makes little or no sense to train soldiers whose primary mission is homeland defense to operate a helicopter optimized for an anti-tank role like the AH-64 Apache, as we do now. Mexico and Canada are not going to flood our borders with main battle tanks. The Gulf Coast is not going to face a heavy amphibious assault. The Yukon is not going to attack.

In a homeland defense role, there may be some need for transport planes and even a handful of fighters to stop the odd errant private civilian plane, be it a crop duster or a 747, or to drop a bomb on an isolated building, but there is not need for the fleet of 622 military fighter jets (including 100 of our most capable fighter, the F-15, designed for air to air combat with advanced Soviet fighter jets) which are there now for this role. Likewise, there is no plausible homeland defense purpose of long range heavy bombers to be in the Air National Guard, yet it currently has 16 supersonic, long range, heavy capacity B-1 bombers. And, as the Air National Guard is primarily tasked for intrastate missions, there is no need for long range transport craft, yet there are two dozen of them, and a couple hundred tanker planes designed to support long range aircraft missions in the Air National Guard.

The intuition that arose from President Bush's experience as a draft dodger isn't wrong. The National Guard should be the first and not the last to go to war in the event that the nation needs to institute a draft. But, a National Guard with two masters and contrary objectives can't train well and can't serve well.

The threshold for calling up the National Guard for foreign service should be higher than the threshold for calling up other military reserve units. And, the National Guard, rather than being equipped simply to round out active duty military forces, should instead be optimized for their domestic roles and utilized abroad only in similar duties. We don't try to have the Coast Guard conduct its primary search and rescue and anti-smuggling missions with nuclear submarines and destroyers, instead, we have them patrol coasts near where U.S. troops are operating for smugglers with cutters and patrol aircraft. Similarly, we shouldn't equip the National Guard to carry out its homeland defense and disaster relief roles with tanks and long range supersonic bombers.

To use military jargon, the National Guard should be trained and equipped for a light counter-insurgency mission, as well as search and rescue, reconnaisance, military policing, response to weapons of mass destruction and terror incidents, and disaster relief.

The Air National Guard should be stripped of its role as an auxillary regular Air Force (with those resources transferred to the Air Force Reserve) and rolled into the Army National Guard as an organic source of transport resources, supplemented by lightly armed Homeland Defense Interceptor type craft at the tenth of the purchase and operating cost of an F-16 or F-35 for engaging errant civilian aircraft. (Indeed, given how many metropolitan areas are interstate in nature, this function might be better carried out by a subdivision of the regular Air Force similar to the Coast Guard). While the National Guard may have use for surplus military equipment, it should also have its own procurement arm which deigns and purchases equipment specifically suited for its needs. For example, lightly armored vehicles with a non-lethal weapons suite might be particularly suitable for National Guard units. Likewise, an ability to function in the face of flood waters, on rivers, on small lakes and in swamps might be more important to Guard units than for regular Army forces.

Together with new equipment, the organization of the National guard should be rethought. Rather than organizing it into eleven notional divisions (presumably to be replaced by notional brigade combat teams as the Army reorganizes), eight separate brigades and a regiment, as we do now, the basic organizational unit of the National Guard should be smaller, perhaps a hundred and twenty-five or so self-sufficient reinforced battallions with all necessary support functions integrated into its headquarters, so that they can be more flexibly deployed, so that part-time citizen soldiers don't need to travel as far to train with other members of their units, and so that units are fully under the direction of a single state governor.

The new Air National Guard, with many of its resources shifted to the Air Force Reserves, would be greatly diminished in size. The new Army National Guard would probably have a less expensive compliment of equipment and a very different mix of equipment from current units, and these might also be somewhat reduced in size. But, with a refocused mission, the National Guard could serve a meaningful role of its own, instead of simply duplicating imperfectly existing military resources.

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