The National Guard is “all in,” its top general emphasized, as leaders and advocates worry the reserve component will be left out as the Army transitions from 12 years of war and struggles with an ongoing budget crisis.
In a memo to Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno, the Guard’s top general outlined the Guard’s commitment to being part of the rotation of forces at home and abroad.
“We commit the National Guard to boots-on-the-ground deployments for one year within a three-year period for unplanned contingency operations and one year within a five-year period for longer, steady-state operations,” wrote Gen. Frank Grass, chief of the National Guard Bureau.
He also called on the Guard to be placed “into operational use” for “long-term, predictable requirements,” such as Kosovo, the Sinai, the Horn of Africa and Guantanamo Bay, and said the Guard is committed to “more frequent rotational use” to meet the needs of a national emergency.
Grass wrote a similar memo to the Air Force chief of staff.
A number of Army Guard units have been off-ramped this year from missions in places such as the Horn of Africa, Kosovo and the Sinai, officials said.
In March, the Army announced that four Indiana National Guard units — about 1,000 soldiers — slated to deploy to the Horn of Africa and the Sinai would stay home. To save money, the Army is sending active-duty units instead.
In an April 18 memo to Congress, the Army cited the ongoing budget shortfall as having “limited the Army’s ability to source missions planned for Army National Guard and Army Reserve forces.” The service will “substitute active component units for reserve component formations where cost savings are possible,” the memo states.
In an interview with Army Times, Grass said the budget crisis led him to write the memo.
“I felt it was important we look to the future … [to] what we think is doable in the National Guard and what we’d like to say to both the service chiefs and secretaries,” he said.
The message is simple, Grass said: “We are in this for the long haul, and here is the rotation policy we are signing up to.”
The Guard wanted to “give the two service chiefs our commitment, in writing, as we look to the future and we look at some tough force structure issues and the overall sequestration bill.”
About 22,000 Army and Air Guard troops are mobilized, Grass said.
The model outlined in the memo — a one-in-five deployment to dwell ratio — is something the Army Guard can sustain “indefinitely,” he said.
There is concern among the adjutants general that the Guard will have a diminished role in the future, Grass said.
“I hear that quite a bit,” he said.
The key, he said, is to take the hard-fought experiences and lessons learned from the past 12 years of war and build a strong training and deployment program within the Army Guard.
“My one major concern on the operational force is being able to challenge these young men and women,” Grass said. “We’ve got to challenge them so they stay with us. How do we build a dynamic training program and deployment program … at a time when the budget is going down?”
One way is to keep a “certain amount” of deployment opportunities open to the Guard, he said. It could be anywhere from 5,000 to 10,000 troops deployed each year.
“If we can afford to do 5,000 to 10,000, that would give us the operational opportunities we’re looking for,” he said.
The Guard also must maximize its available training time, he said.
Grass recalled a number of training events he participated in as a young captain, where his engineer unit would deploy to Central America for annual training and they would exercise everything from logistics and transportation to operations and working in a foreign country.
“That was some of the most demanding training I’d ever experienced in my career,” he said. “I think we need to get back into that both [outside the U.S.] and in the homeland.”
One example is the Golden Coyote exercise, which recently concluded in South Dakota, Grass said.
More than 3,500 troops from 55 units in 22 states and four allied nations participated, and they were focused on helping local communities haul timber out of the Black Hills. The troops also conducted urban operations, land navigation, first aid and casualty evacuation, and medical troops conducted clinics for the local residents.
“We were helping a community and we were getting training in the process,” Grass said. “You could see it in the eyes and the comments of the soldiers who were out there. They enjoyed that work. It was challenging. That’s a dynamic training exercise that doesn’t cost a lot of money.”
Another initiative Grass is working on is the Key Personnel Upgrade Program.
The program, which the Guard hasn’t used since the 1990s, uses Guard soldiers to fill temporary shortfalls in the active component.
“If there was a gap for 30 days or maybe even a year in a certain branch, we’d offer it to guardsmen who could get away” from their civilian jobs, Grass said.
“It was a great opportunity for our soldiers to do that mission and hone their skills,” he said.
Grass said he’d like to bring back the KPUP program and possibly expand it to include senior and general officers.
“We did a pilot at [Northern Command], and it’s worked very well,” he said.
Grass said he is confident the Guard will respond whenever it’s called upon.
“I’ve never seen a healthier Guard force in my 43 years in the Guard,” he said. “The majority of people have joined since 9/11. They understand what they’re getting into, and they want to be a part of something that supports our nation, supports our way of life.”