Guard's domestic readiness questioned

States say foreign deployments cripple U.S. disaster response

May 13, 2007|By Kirsten Scharnberg | Kirsten Scharnberg,Chicago Tribune

As wildfires, floods and tornadoes batter the nation, the readiness of the National Guard to deal with those disasters, as well as any attacks, is so depleted by deployments to foreign wars and equipment shortfalls that Congress is considering moves to curtail the president's powers over the Guard and require the Defense Department to analyze how prepared the country is for domestic emergencies.

The debate over the state of the National Guard has been intensifying for several years, but a powerful tornado in Kansas early this month has spun the topic back into the spotlight.

When the small farming community of Greensburg was effectively wiped off the map, leaving 11 people in the area dead and miles of rubble to be searched and cleared, Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, a Democrat, was direct in her explanation for why the response had not been faster: The policies of the federal government, she said, had left the Kansas National Guard understaffed and underequipped. Her comments infuriated the Bush administration, which countered that the majority of her state's Guard members were available to be called up and that she would be provided any equipment she lacked as soon as she requested it.

The bitter exchange represented a familiar debate to governors across the U.S., many of whom have long feared and predicted that a catastrophic event could find their National Guard units hard-pressed to react to mass casualties or chaos after four years of war in Iraq.

Washington Gov. Chris Gregoire, a Democrat, watched the events unfold in Kansas, remembering her own worries from 2006.

At the beginning of last summer's wildfire season, she attended a meeting with other governors from the Northwest. She had a big problem: Parts of her state were a tinderbox because of drought. Key segments of Washington's National Guard had deployed to Iraq. And the units that were left were facing severe equipment shortages.

"I soon discovered that virtually all of the other governors were in the same position," Gregoire said.

Not long after that meeting, all 50 U.S. governors - the commanders in chief of their states' National Guards - signed a letter to the president imploring him to immediately begin re-outfitting their depleted National Guards. But little changed, and the National Guard now has only 56 percent of its required equipment, the lowest levels in nearly six years, according to the Government Accountability Office.

The tug of war between the president and the governors over the National Guard seems to heat up during national emergencies. But how much of the rhetoric is simply the finger-pointing and power jockeying of politics?

"The problem with the National Guard is not being exaggerated or overstated," said Loren Thompson, a military analyst at the Lexington Institute, a Virginia-based national security think tank. "It is very real, and it is a very big deal."

The administration has said that while the problem is a concern, it believes states can overcome any issues by sharing among themselves during disasters. In addition, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said last week that the administration is asking Congress for $22 billion for the Army National Guard over the next five years, which would take Guard equipment levels up to 76 percent. Still, the GAO recently determined that "this equipment may be deployed to meet overseas demands."

In late 2005, a GAO report found that almost every state's National Guard had a fraction of the equipment it was supposed to have. Another GAO report issued just months ago took the criticism further. "The high use of the National Guard for federal overseas missions has reduced equipment available for its state-led domestic missions," the report concluded. And even the top commander of the National Guard, Lt. Gen. Steven Blum, candidly testified to Congress that the continuous use of its forces for overseas missions has "resulted in a decline of readiness for units here at home."

Connecticut Gov. M. Jodi Rell, a Republican, wrote in March to the House Armed Service Committee that her National Guard was missing the kinds of vehicles it would need to dig out from a late-spring nor'easter or to evacuate residents in the wake of a flood. The California National Guard, routinely called up in the event of earthquakes and any subsequent looting, is missing 700 Humvees, and it has only half the high-water vehicles it should have and less than a third of its required stockpile of machine guns.

As troubling as the equipment shortfalls may be, that is only a part of the worry among governors, the GAO, and the Commission on the National Guard and Reserves, a federally appointed group of military experts and former generals. All are critical of the fact that the Pentagon does not routinely measure the equipment readiness of nondeployed National Guard forces for domestic missions. There is a push that this information be collected and reported to Congress.

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