December 6, 2006

December 6, 2006 | Commentary on

'Go Guard' ... with what?

Imagine your employer gave you to a critical and difficult new assignment. Before you could start your duties, the company took away your computer, your Blackberry and your cell phone. You would probably wonder if you were being set up for failure. Well, something similar is happening with our National Guard. 

According to Lt. Col. Thomas Plunkett III of the Louisiana Army National Guard, his battalion was being called up for deployment to Iraq in 2004 just one month after he had been ordered to give up his machine guns and other equipment to an Arkansas unit that was deploying sooner. This story is all too typical for Army National Guard units called up for overseas combat missions. 

The demands of overseas missions, particularly in Iraq, have badly depleted the Army National Guard's domestic store of vehicles, weapons and communications gear. According to the Congressional Research Service, Guard units responding to Hurricane Katrina did not have enough tactical radios or Humvees adapted for high-water operations because this equipment was in Iraq. In fact, a report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office estimates that since 2003, Army National Guard units have left some 64,000 items worth $1.2 billion overseas. Transferring equipment from a stateside unit to one about to leave the U.S. causes a vicious cycle with disastrous effects on unit preparedness. 

With some 53,000 Guard personnel deployed for federal missions, and thousands more responding to recent natural disasters at home, Army National Guard units cannot afford to operate without all their equipment stateside. Lt. Gen. Clyde Vaughn, vice chief of the National Guard Bureau and director of the Army National Guard, recently noted "from July 2002 through September 2005, overall unit readiness decreased by 41 percent in order to provide personnel and equipment to deploying units." 

Familiarizing soldiers with their equipment improves morale and deployment readiness. To remain a trained and ready force, the Army National Guard needs the right mix of capabilities and as much equipment as possible available in the United States. 

The Army National Guard, however, lacks an equipment-modernization program specifically designed for its unique needs and capabilities. This was acceptable when the Guard was mainly a back-up force to active units, typically in later stages of conflict. But in the last five years the Army National Guard has contributed nearly half of all Army troops on the ground in Iraq and has assumed an increased role in homeland defense. 

The common-sense, affordable solution to equipment problems is the Army's Stryker Brigade Combat Team model, already used by some active Army units -- a wheeled combat force that is highly mobile and transportable in a variety of military aircraft. A Stryker team is fast, maneuverable and can include large numbers of infantry soldiers, making it well-suited for missions within cities and towns from New Orleans to Baghdad. 

The Stryker platform includes medical evacuation, reconnaissance, fire support, engineer squad and troop carrier variants. Other benefits include mobile command and control, larger evacuation capacity than other combat vehicles, rapid deployment (no heavy transport required and no damage to roads), and protection for rescue and crowd-control missions. The Stryker framework offers a middle ground of capabilities between heavy and light forces and can fulfill all the missions of the Army National Guard. 

The Stryker Brigade Combat Team also has unique reconnaissance and networked communications capabilities, allowing commanders to get real-time reports from their troops and issue orders quickly and directly. These teams also can detect and contain chemical, biological and hazardous material and can work with other tools, such as helicopters, to make a mission successful. Finally, the Stryker model allows for upgrading units with newer technology as it becomes available. 

Congress and the administration have a window of opportunity to replace the Army National Guard's equipment by modeling the Army's successful Stryker Brigade Combat Team. The money is there -- the secretary of the Army recently committed to spend $38.6 billion through 2013 for Army National Guard equipment. 

By choosing the Stryker program and providing the necessary funding in fiscal 2008 to equip the Army National Guard, the active Army can begin to reverse the trend of under-equipping the National Guard. And it can stop robbing Peter to pay Paul when equipping units to deploy overseas.

Mackenzie Eaglen is a senior policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Mackenzie Eaglen Research Fellow for National Security Studies, Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies
Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign and National Security Policy

Distributed nationally on the McClatchy Tribune News Service