Washington. -- Originally created as an alternative to a large standing military force and for territorial defense, the National Guard is now over half the size of the active Army. Since 1973 it has been a key component of the "total force concept," where "active, reserve and guard units [forge] into a single war-fighting force."
Actual experience, however, has been different: The Guard's "round out" brigades were not combat-ready during Operation Desert Storm; they remained in the U.S. for training. The Guard also has been used politically by governors to challenge federal policy.
Ill-suited as either a combat machine or political tool, the National Guard should be assimilated into active-duty forces as part of the reserves to create more efficient units that meet its constitutional purpose.
Guard units receive nine-tenths of their funding from Washington, but they have remained under state control since the precursor force raised in Massachusetts in 1636 to which the 181st and 182nd Infantry, the 101st Field Artillery and the 101st Engineer Battalion trace their origin. Reaching almost as far back is the tradition of contravening federal policy. The New York militia balked at orders for the invasion of Canada in the War of 1812; similarly, units were not called into action for the Mexican War. The first time Guard units fought on foreign soil was in the Spanish-American War in 1898, when President McKinley swore their members into federal service as volunteers to fight in Cuba.
The Dick Act in 1903 reformed the Guard. While remaining under state control, it would be equipped and supported by Washington. Guard units now have front-line equipment such as M-1 tanks and F-15 fighters. Training one weekend a month and two weeks full-time, Guard units participate in exercises with the active armed forces.
Governors with presidential aspirations have used the Guard to oppose federal policy. Michael Dukakis of Massachusetts refused to send units to exercises in Honduras. Congress
responded by passing the Montgomery Amendment in 1986, prohibiting the withholding of units from training due to opposition to the "location, purpose, type or schedule." (A lawsuit subsequently filed by several governors failed to overturn the Montgomery Amendment.)
The Guard's domestic role is also at issue. It is defined as "to execute the laws of the Union, suppress Insurrections and repel invasions," duties which have been taken to include snow removal and disaster relief.
This definition raises unsettling questions. If David Duke had been elected governor of Louisiana, would the Louisiana National Guard have become a de facto militia for white supremacists? Recruits from the Klan and other groups might have rushed to "serve" under Mr. Duke, receiving training, weapons and pay, leading to a formidable, racist army. If there were student unrest at predominantly black Grambling University in Louisiana, would a Governor Duke have been quick to call in the Guard? Would "shoot-to-kill" orders have resulted in another Kent State, exacerbating racial tension nationwide?
The Guard could be ordered into other explosive missions. A Texas governor might put units along the border to stop smuggling or stanch the immigrant flow. With turmoil in Haiti and Cuba, a Florida governor might order the Guard to the shores of Caribbean islands to repel refugee boats.
The only mission for units with tanks, artillery and fighters is support for active forces. The Guard should be assimilated into the reserves. With defense spending declining, it is foolish and wasteful to fund three separate administrative and logistics systems (active forces, reserve, and National Guard) having the same equipment and paymaster. The unity of command imperative for armed forces is also abrogated by state control of the Guard.
A more efficient and effective armed forces would result. Gen. Colin Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, estimates "It will take about a year to bring . . . Guard divisions up to any reasonable level of combat readiness." With direction over all forces in one chain of command, mobilization would be timelier; equipment would not have to go to three sets of soldiers; and cost savings and better control would flow from dissolution of the existing multiple administrative layers.
Obviously, snow removal or relief missions do not require attack helicopters or fighter-bombers. Expanded police forces or fire departments could handle these. The firepower of today's Guard if misapplied could result in a national or international crisis.
Defense Secretary Richard Cheney is encountering stiff resistance to his plan to disband 830 National Guard and Army Reserve units with 140,000 members from members of Congress with "at least a few armories in their districts."
Merging the Guard into the reserve would make cutbacks a policy matter, as they should be, rather than a pork-barrel issue. With reduced defense budgets looming and streamlined reserve units needed that can reach combat-ready status on short notice, separate National Guard forces are a political and military luxury no longer affordable.
Jonathan Paul Yates is a free-lance writer on trade and defense issues.