TOPICS > Politics

Changing the National Guard

January 14, 2002 at 12:00 AM EST
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TOM BEARDEN: Since Sept. 11, forty-five thousand National Guardsmen have been called to active duty.

Pilots are flying combat air patrols over major cities.

Troops are guarding airports, bridges, and nuclear power plants.

Airmen like Robert Harris and Stuart Gardner, who patrol Los Angeles International Airport, are working 14-hour days away from their homes and their civilian jobs.

But both say they have it comparatively easy.

SR. AIRMAN ROBERT HARRIS, California Air Guard: I try to think of veterans in the past who have served in Vietnam, the Persian Gulf, and my friends and brothers in Afghanistan, and then I… The duty here makes it a little more easy, thinking about the burdens they’re putting up with.

TOM BEARDEN: The Guard just celebrated its 365th birthday, tracing its roots all the way back to pre-Revolutionary war militia units.

In more recent times, they’ve been called up to quell civil unrest and to assist with natural disasters.

Guardsmen helped integrate Little Rock High School in 1957, and were the center of a storm of controversy when soldiers killed four students during anti-war demonstrations at Kent State in 1970. Guardsmen have also fought alongside the regulars in many of the country’s wars. In fact, backing up the active forces has become a primary mission.

Now the Guard has taken a leading role in homeland defense. That mission was hardly on the radarscope before Sept. 11.

But now a major Pentagon study is under way to decide which forces are best for the job, and in the process determine the future organization of the country’s military forces.

One example of that scrutiny focuses on National Guard units called “Weapons of Mass Destruction Civilian Assistance Teams.”

TOM BEARDEN: This is a training exercise in Southern California, simulating the release of a nerve gas agent.

MAN: We have a convex container that is leaking an unknown substance.

TOM BEARDEN: Local fire departments and hazardous materials units practiced procedures to contain the threat, and then called the ninth Weapons of Mass Destruction Team from the California National Guard for help.

There are 32 such teams scattered across the country. The unit has mobile laboratory equipment, which detects the precise threat. The team then advises civilian authorities on the best course of action.

But some wonder if the civilian agencies could do the job themselves. Randall Larsen heads a homeland defense think tank.

He says the original plan was to have ten teams, costing about $18 million. Larsen says congressional politics have swelled that to 32, and that only ten of them have been certified as being capable of doing the work.

COL. RANDALL LARSEN (Ret.), ANSER Institute for Homeland Security: If we would have taken a fraction of that money that went to weapons of mass destruction civil support teams, and had spent that on providing some new capabilities and some new training, and perhaps a few new personnel at the local HAZMAT teams, I think it would have been a far wiser investment of taxpayer money and had a lot more capability.

TOM BEARDEN: Why should the guard do this? Why can’t the civilian folks have the same equipment and the same training?

MASTER SGT. DOUG FOGELMAN, California National Guard: The Guard here, the reason… The best part about the Guard is, we bring in military assets. We advise, assess, and facilitate.

We have all the government assets at our fingertips, and we can make the phone calls to bring in the government assets if it really goes ugly in an incident– like, they really slime a place in Los Angeles. Once we establish what the problem is and how big it is, that incident commander and that mayor are going to be really scared, and we can say, “okay, now here’s your answer. We have all these assets we can bring in right now.”

We make the phone calls, and it’s happening.

MAN: What airline are you flying on, sir?

MAN: American.

TOM BEARDEN: The presence of thousands of guardsmen patrolling hundreds of American airports is also controversial. Their assignment is to beef up security.

SR. AIRMAN ROBERT HARRIS, California Air Guard: We augment law enforcement, providing extra eyes and ears and adding an extra sense of protection for the public, letting them know that it’s safe to fly now.

TOM BEARDEN: Soldiers are also on duty at dozens of smaller airports, like the one in Fresno in Central California.

MAN: You here tomorrow?

MAN: Yes, sir.

MAN: We’re going to start mustering you guys out of station.

TOM BEARDEN: Sergeant Charles Dorfmeier says he and his fellow guardsmen have developed a good working relationship with local police officers.

But here, too, questions have been raised about whether the Guard’s presence actually translates into better security, despite the fact that they received special training from both the Guard and the FAA.

COL. RANDALL LARSEN (Ret.): It doesn’t make me feel any more secure seeing them there.

I guess if I were a foreign terrorist operating in the United States, and I walked in there and I saw those camouflage uniforms and M-16s, there may be some deterrent value there.

TOM BEARDEN: Larsen thinks the Guard ought to have a role in homeland defense, but is concerned that Guardsmen and women might be asked to do too much.

The Guard was to be on station until the newly federalized security force is in place, but no one knows how long that’ll take.

COL. RANDALL LARSEN (Ret.): We’ve asked a lot from our citizen soldiers in this country and our citizen airmen in the National Guard.

We’re using them for the last ten years, deploying them to missions all over the globe. And now we have them guarding bridges in California, and we have them at airports. I think we have to ask some very serious questions about what’s the real value of this.

TOM BEARDEN: General Russell Davis is the chief of the Guard Bureau, the Pentagon agency that sets policy for the National Guard.

He says most people didn’t sign on to tote a rifle in an airport, and he’s worried that they might decide to end their Guard careers.

LT. GENERAL RUSSELL DAVIS, National Guard Bureau Chief: If people wanted to become firemen and policemen, they’d go out and become firemen and policemen.

Yes, they will do the duty. Yes, we have carried mail. National Guardsmen trained to do mail and assist with mail a few years ago in mail strikes. But they didn’t join for that purpose.

TOM BEARDEN: General Paul Monroe commands the California National Guard.

TOM BEARDEN: Are you concerned about retention and recruiting when people contemplate much more active service than the guard has ever done before?

MAJOR GENERAL PAUL D. MONROE, JR., Adjutant General, California National Guard: Absolutely. It’s always a problem every time the Guard is activated. And it’s not that people aren’t patriotic.

Usually what happens is, they go for a national crisis, and they solve the national crisis, they feel real good about it– what more is there to do? So some of those people leave the service.

TOM BEARDEN: But the larger question remains unanswered so far: Who should be in charge of the military aspects of homeland defense?

At a recent Senate Judiciary Subcommittee hearing, California Senator Diane Feinstein wondered if it might not be time for a reorganization.

SEN. DIANNE FEINSTEIN, (D-Calif.): The anthrax incidents, the looking at crop dusters, the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, what else… You know, the fear that something else is going to happen.

We have never been in that arena before, and the longer I am around; the more I think a kind of primary military response is really the protection of a homeland.

TOM BEARDEN: Some members of Congress think one answer might be to create a commander in chief for homeland defense, an officer in charge of all the military assets in that arena.

Retired Lieutenant General Frank Libutti is the special assistant for homeland security at the Department of Defense.

LT. GENERAL FRANK LIBUTTI (Ret.), Department of Defense: We should be very circumspect. We should not be premature in making judgments to change things until we see the results of reviews that are already underway, and should be closed by the spring.

In terms of what DOD is doing, they’ll look holistically at the role of the Guard and the Reserve, what we’re doing inside DOD– and that’s to stand up what we hope will be an undersecretary of defense.

TOM BEARDEN: One decision could be to strip the National Guard of its heavy ground combat units, which are designed to back up the Army overseas.

Phil Anderson, with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, says such units may be obsolete for the homeland security mission.

COL. PHILLIP ANDERSON (Ret.), Center for Strategic & International Studies: I think that if we were to examine the threat, I think we could be fairly confident that we’re not going to require heavy mechanized forces– artillery, infantry, heavily armed infantry– to address the homeland security issue.

I think what we would find is, is that we need constabulary forces, things that are more akin to military police forces, to augment state and local capability, and militia force, if you will, to satisfy this requirement.

TOM BEARDEN: General Monroe says any attempt to take away the combat units could touch off a turf war.

MAJOR GENERAL PAUL D. MONROE, JR., Adjutant General, California National Guard: General Shinseki, the chief staff of the Army, he’s got a mission, as he says, for the entire Army, for the Army and the Guard and the Reserves.

Now, if the Guard is to focus more on homeland security than it has in the past, that’s kind of out of his hands, so he sees his responsibility of increasing the resources of the total armies.

So if, for example, the Guard, 25 percent, 30 percent of their force is focused exclusively on homeland security, then what those wartime tasks they were doing, General Shinseki, in his mind, he needs to replace that.

And right now, his solution is, I think, to increase the active forces, to replace those wartime tasks that the guard may not be available to do.

TOM BEARDEN: General Monroe and others in the National Guard leadership say they’d resist any effort to strip the Guard of its combat units.

They say the Guard is fully capable of fulfilling both a national defense mission and its current combat role.