National Guard seeking $20 billion for new gear

Deployments draining the force, general says

December 17, 2004|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - The National Guard needs $20 billion over the next three years to replace equipment used in responding to domestic emergencies and deploying for overseas missions, the Guard's top officer said yesterday.

Lt. Gen. H Steven Blum, chief of the National Guard Bureau, said he hopes to get some of that money from an emergency spending request that will be sent to Congress early next year to help pay for the Iraq and Afghanistan missions. The measure is expected to top $80 billion, military officials said.

Some Guard troops in Iraq are complaining about inadequate equipment, particularly the lack of armor for Humvees and trucks. Last week, a soldier from the Tennessee National Guard sparked a national debate about the issue when he confronted Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld during a town hall meeting for soldiers in Kuwait.

"Why do we soldiers have to dig through local landfills for pieces of scrap metal and compromised ballistic glass to up-armor our vehicles?" asked Spc. Thomas Wilson.

A widespread problem

The Army then released statistics showing a more widespread problem, with thousands of trucks not scheduled to be armored until September. During the next six to eight months, the Army will spend $4.1 billion in an effort to armor vehicles in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Equipment damaged or left overseas for Army units has also become a problem, Blum told reporters at the Pentagon yesterday.

"We need to reset the force," said Blum, a former Baltimore teacher. "Otherwise, the Guard will be broken and not ready the next time it's needed, either here at home or for war."

A major reason for the problem is that the Guard was designed as a strategic reserve force in case of a war with the Soviet Union but is now being used repeatedly for operations overseas.

"We are inadequately resourced to be an operational force," Blum said.

About 42,000 Army National Guard soldiers are now in Iraq and Kuwait on yearlong deployments and another 8,200 are in Afghanistan out of a total Army Guard force of 350,000 part-time soldiers, Guard officials said.

When not called to federal duty, Guard units answer to the governor of their state. Blum said he has assured governors that about half of their Guard soldiers would remain home to fulfill homeland security roles or respond to natural disasters such as hurricanes, floods and wildfires.

Equal equipment

The general's comments illustrate the ever-increasing financial toll of the Iraq campaign, which costs about $4.4 billion a month overall, and lingering questions about replacing military equipment.

"We've got two armies," said Col. John Zimmerman, the staff judge advocate, or legal adviser, for Wilson's unit, the 278th Regimental Combat Team. "We've got the active-duty [Army] and we've got the National Guard. We're proud to serve. We just want what everyone else has. We're not asking for anything more."

Blum insisted yesterday that Guard troops heading to Iraq receive equipment equal to that being issued to soldiers in the regular Army. He praised the Army's chief of staff, Gen. Peter J. Schoomaker, who he said "has done extraordinary things to bring equipment up to parity."

But Blum said that that when Guard troops return home, they could have insufficient equipment for training or to respond when a governor calls.

"The Guard was a strategic reserve. It means we were under-resourced, the equipment was older," Blum said. "That still exists in large parts of the Guard - the parts that haven't gone to war."

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