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Army, National Guard at odds over scarcer resources

DefenseArmed ForcesLaws and LegislationU.S. Army

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.'"

Forty-nine governors, including Gov. Martin O'Malley, followed with a similar letter to President Barack Obama.

Sen. Ben Cardin said the guard "should have a more inclusive role in determining future budgets."

"The National Guard has been an unfailing partner with the active-duty military for two long wars," the Maryland Democrat said, and it "continues to play an important role overseas and here at home."

For some guard members, the conflict has become personal. Army leaders have frequently praised the performance of guard units since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. At one point during the Iraq war, guardsmen made up the majority of ground combat forces.

But guard members were insulted in January when Army Chief of Staff Gen. Raymond T. Odierno said the Army's active-duty and reserve components "are not interchangeable."

Retired Maj. Gen. Gus Hargett, president of the National Guard Association of the United States, called Odierno's comments "disrespectful and simply not true."

Hargett, the former commander of the Tennessee National Guard, said there are differences between the active-duty Army and the guard.

"The Army National Guard is primarily a part-time, pay-as-it-is-used force, which makes it significantly cheaper to maintain," he said. "Army National Guard soldiers tend to be a little older and a little more experienced. They also have a unique domestic mission.

"But Army National Guard and active-component Army units are, by design, interchangeable."

Members say a guardsman serves at roughly one-third the cost of an active-duty soldier.

Maryland Army National Guard members have made a total of 4,500 deployments to Iraq or Afghanistan; in some cases, a member has made more than one deployment.

Twelve members have been killed since the attacks of Sept. 11. The most recent was Maj. Robert J. Marchanti II, a former Baltimore County schoolteacher-turned-full-time guardsman who was shot to death in Kabul, Afghanistan, in February 2012.

Adkins said comments that disparage the guard "are not particularly helpful."

"For 13 years, Maryland guardsmen have fought, bled and died in places like Iraq and Afghanistan," he said. "The United States of America could not have conducted the wars that they've conducted over the last 13 years without the National Guard and the Reserve. And to get to a budget battle and not be willing to partner in finding budget solutions, it's just amazing for me to see this."

Wilson's legislation to create an independent commission has attracted 123 co-sponsors. Most, but not all, are Republicans. No Maryland lawmaker has signed on.

Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee and a co-chair of the bipartisan House caucus on Army issues, says he's undecided on a commission. But either way, the Baltimore County lawmaker said, "there will be an opportunity for the guard to be heard" as lawmakers consider the budget.

Ruppersberger's district includes Fort Meade and Aberdeen Proving Ground, Maryland's two largest Army installations. He said that "everybody in the Department of Defense is going to have to take cuts."

He added: "It's about prioritizing. You can't have every program that you used to have."

With the end of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Ruppersberger said, military budget priorities will have to shift toward intelligence and cyberwarfare. But he stressed that increases in those areas should not come at the expense of significant force reductions.

"We need to maintain our dominance in the world as the best military," he said.

When the Air Force threatened two years ago to cut the Air National Guard, Adkins said, the National Commission on the Structure of the Air Force helped establish what he called a "middle ground."

The Maryland Air National Guard, which lost its airlift mission last year with the retirement of its four C-27J Spartan aircraft, learned recently that it would regain that capability with the arrival of eight C-130J Super Hercules turboprops.

"Everybody agrees that there have got to be cuts," he said. "My concern is not how many people are in the Maryland National Guard or how many people are in the National Guard overall. But when the process is not open, and doesn't appear to be fair, then we become concerned that it's not in the best interest of the nation."

matthew.brown@baltsun.com

twitter.com/matthewhaybrown

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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