Guard's domestic readiness questioned

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.

The other hot-button issue between the governors and the president regarding the National Guard involves the Insurrection Act, the law that governs when the National Guard can be "federalized" for domestic law enforcement without the consent of a governor. A 2006 revision to the act expanded the president's power to assume control of the Guard during domestic events, something that governors say threatens to derail state disaster planning and response. Sens. Patrick J. Leahy, a Vermont Democrat, and Christopher S. Bond, a Missouri Republican, co-chairs of the Senate National Guard Caucus, have introduced a bill to repeal the changes.

One of the healthy byproducts of the fight between the president and governors over the National Guard is that states have learned to work closely with one another. After Katrina, Guard leaders and state officials developed the Emergency Management Assistance Compact, an agreement that if one state is in short supply of people or gear when disaster strikes, it can borrow from other states.

Yet borrowing from neighbors is not always feasible, as Gregoire found out at that meeting between governors last year. A map drawn up by the GAO illustrates that there are many neighboring states with such severe equipment storages they might have trouble borrowing from one another. North Carolina, for example, has only about 39 percent of its equipment while South Carolina sits at about 49 percent.

There are a few spots for optimism.


The Tennessee National Guard, the only armored Guard unit in the nation, has received $170 million in replacement equipment and is better prepared than most states to respond to a disaster, a spokesman announced recently. Rhode Island, which just completed the largest hurricane drill in the nation, concluded that its National Guard's response indicated that it was adequately equipped and trained to respond to such an event, despite the fact that much of its key engineering heavy equipment is in Iraq. Officials in Florida, which is predicted to have a busy hurricane season this year, say they are prepared for whatever storms come, despite having just about half of the Guard's allotted equipment.

It seems everyone fears the same thing: the kind of disaster that might cross state boundaries and demand a full-scale emergency response that would dwarf what was required this month in Kansas.

"This isn't just a week when a little town in Kansas was torn apart," said Thompson, the military analyst. "It is also a week when there were wildfires across Georgia and Florida, a week when the Missouri River flooded. We have natural disasters every week in this country, and that's why the National Guard needs to be ready to respond every week. It's not."

Kirsten Scharnberg writes for the Chicago Tribune.