Army, National Guard at odds over scarcer resources

Battlefield comrades now fighting over troop cuts; Md. Guard could lose 500 soldiers

  • A staff sergeant provides instruction to Maryland National Guard recruits in formation.
A staff sergeant provides instruction to Maryland National… (Doug Kapustin / Baltimore…)
March 15, 2014|By Matthew Hay Brown and John Fritze, The Baltimore Sun

After more than a dozen years fighting side by side in Afghanistan and Iraq, the Army and the National Guard are battling each other over budget cuts.

The Army, tasked with restructuring for a postwar future amid rising personnel costs and spending cuts ordered by Congress, has proposed reducing the number of national guardsmen nationwide by 10 percent — from 350,000 soldiers to as few as 315,000 by 2019.

In Maryland, that could mean the loss of 400 to 500 soldiers from the 4,700-member Maryland Army National Guard, according to Maj. Gen. James A. Adkins. Plans to retire some helicopters and move others from the guard to the active-duty Army also could affect the state force.

But in an unusually public conflict, Adkins and his fellow adjutants general — the top guard commanders in each of the states and territories — have joined to fight the Army over cuts they say could put national security at risk.

They say they recognize the fiscal constraints confronting the Army but were not consulted sufficiently before the plan was made public. They are asking Congress to freeze any troop cuts until an independent commission can study and recommend reductions that would be acceptable to both sides.

"The senior Army leadership has picked the wrong battle to fight," Adkins said. "Instead of picking a battle with the National Guard, they should have become allies to come up with solutions. What the Department of Defense and the Army and the National Guard owe the Congress is a coordinated plan that deals with these significant budget cuts."

The Maryland National Guard is made up of students, blue-collar workers and professionals who drill together in units throughout the state. Many are former active-duty soldiers or reservists. In the guard, they serve in special forces, infantry, military police and support units, and stand ready to respond to natural disasters at home or to deploy overseas.

Under the proposed nationwide cuts, the Army would reduce the number of brigade combat teams in the guard from 28 to 22, the number of combat aviation brigades from 10 to six and the number of attack aviation battalions from eight to zero.

The Army would not spare its active-duty component in the cuts. It would reduce the number of active-duty troops from 510,000 to as few as 420,000 by 2019, the lowest number of full-time soldiers since before World War II. And it would retire a couple of Cold War-era aircraft: the tank-busting A-10 Thunderbolt II, which is flown by the Maryland Air National Guard, and the U-2 spy plane.

The Army is requesting $120.5 billion for the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1, down from $125 billion this year and a peak of $144 billion in fiscal 2010. The figures do not include the costs of operations in Afghanistan and the withdrawal later this year.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said the Pentagon would ask Congress for a new round of base realignment and closures in 2017. Maryland gained jobs in the last round in 2005.

The Army did not respond to a request for comment. A spokesman for the National Guard Bureau said the guard "understands the fiscal challenges facing the nation and the Department of Defense and we are actively working with the services to achieve the right force mix for fighting America's wars, defending the homeland and building global partnerships."

The conflict now moves to Capitol Hill, where lawmakers will consider the Army plan as part of the larger federal budget.

Rep. Joe Wilson, a South Carolina Republican, has introduced legislation that would create a National Commission on the Structure of the Army, much as Congress did two years ago during a period of similar friction between the National Guard and the Air Force. Wilson is a retired former colonel in the South Carolina National Guard.

The Army has not responded publicly to Wilson's proposal. But retired former Chief of Staff Gen. Gordon R. Sullivan, now president of the Association of the United States Army, said a new panel is unnecessary, could damage readiness and would impede the Army's ability to meet mandated spending cuts.

"There is no reason to empower a committee to redesign the Army," Sullivan wrote last month to House Speaker John A. Boehner. "The Army components' senior leaders are best qualified to organize, train and equip a total force" — meaning the combined active-duty Army, National Guard and Reserve — to deter adversaries, meet treaty obligations, respond to domestic crises and fight wars.

Adkins and 49 other adjutants general sent a letter to Hagel last month asking for the commission.

"Every indication is that the Army is marketing a solution that is unacceptable to the National Guard and takes unnecessary risk with national security," they wrote. "The White House seems to be asking for a flexible, adaptable, deployable combat force that can surge to meet the ever-changing needs of our Nation. We call this force, 'the National Guard.'"

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