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National Guard Underfunded, Not Prepared for Crises

March 1, 2007 at 6:10 PM EST
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Since the attacks of 9/11, members of the U.S. National Guard have served in higher numbers, in more dangerous missions abroad and at home since any time after World War II.

When soldiers enlist in the Guard, they commit themselves to one weekend of service a month, plus one month of training a year, while holding down civilian jobs. They also commit to be mobilized and to serve for extended periods of time when needed.

The Guard’s mission is twofold. They respond to domestic emergencies at the order of a governor or the president and fulfill both peacekeeping and war fighting abroad.

Since 9/11, nearly 430,000 national guardsmen have been mobilized; almost half of those have served in Iraq and Afghanistan. In fact, in 2005, guardsmen made up more than 40 percent of U.S. troops in Iraq. And a guardsman was one of every six troops killed.

Last month, the Defense Department announced plans to call up some National Guard members more frequently, even those who have already served two years, but, with a pledge, new service would last no more than one additional year.

Some Guard members who already served in Iraq and Afghanistan have and will see duty there again. According to one report, 14,000 more guardsmen will be sent to Iraq next year.

The frequent missions overseas have created tension at home, where the Guard traditionally responds to natural disasters and, after 9/11, helped provide security at airports and police the U.S. borders.

In 2005, 50,000 National Guard members were mobilized after Hurricane Katrina. Some of Louisiana’s National Guard couldn’t help because they were already deployed in Iraq.

Governors, including Oregon’s Ted Kulongoski, says the wars have taken a toll on the Guard and on national security at home.

GOV. TED KULONGOSKI (D), Oregon: It’s a manpower issue. And I think, if we continue to use this what I would call sort of like a postage-stamp approach to it, by sticking this up and trying to plug all the holes, this is not good for the country.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The problems created by heavy use of the National Guard are being studied by an independent panel created by Congress. The commission presented its interim report today. Retired Rear Admiral J. Stanton Thompson is a member.

REAR ADM. J. STANTON THOMPSON (Ret.), Commission on the National Guard and Reserves: The National Guard will be, at least historically and we believe in the future, will be the first responders in uniform in these state events.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Key among the critical findings: “The Department of Defense does not explicitly budget and program for civil or domestic support missions,” for the National Guard; “the equipment readiness of the Army National Guard is unacceptable.”

And the report concluded the “‘operational reserve,’ meaning the Guard and Reserves, is not sustainable over time.” The final report of the commission will be presented to Congress and the secretary of defense early next year.

The role of the Guard

Maj. Gen. Arnold Punaro
U.S. Marine Corps
Let's face it: There are no national security missions that we can carry out now or in the future that will not have the Guard and Reserve involved.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And with me is retired Marine Corps Major General Arnold Punaro. He is chairman of the Commission on the National Guard and Reserves.

Gen. Punaro, good to see you. Thank you very much for being with us.

I just want to start with a clarification. You refer often in the report to the Department of Defense declaration that there be an operational reserve. Can you explain for us exactly what that means?

MAJ. GEN. ARNOLD PUNARO, U.S. Marine Corps: Judy, we have to back up to get the truly profound nature of the change that is upon us when we say that the Guard and Reserve is operational.

And let's face it: There are no national security missions that we can carry out now or in the future that will not have the Guard and Reserve involved.

In the peak of the Cold War, where the major threat our nation was concerned about was war with the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact, the Guard and Reserve was a strategic force, held in reserve, brought in at the last minute. We had, in our war plans back in those days -- and thank goodness we never had to use them -- we were supposed to get 10 divisions to NATO in 10 days to block the Soviet Warsaw Pact.

But the National Guard and reserve were not in the front edge of that. They were brought in, months, even years, afterwards. They were strategic, and they weren't used during the Vietnam War, and they really weren't used until the '90s.

But in the 90s, because we had a significant drawdown in our active-duty military personnel, over a million active-duty and Guard and Reserve were drawn down, we started using them more and more, and now where we're using them today interchangeably with the active force.

And so they're expected, according to Lieutenant General Odierno, who testified before our commission, an operational reserve means that every day a part of that is actually out there, just like the active force, and the part that isn't gone has to be ready to go at a moment's notice.

Making the Guard operational

Maj. Gen. Arnold Punaro
U.S. Marine Corps
You can have the best-trained troops and the best-led troops, but if you don't have the equipment to do the job, that unit is not going to be as combat-effective as they need to be.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, your report concludes, however, that the changes that you say are necessary have not been made by the Department of Defense to ensure that the Guard is a, quote, "operational reserve."

MAJ. GEN. ARNOLD PUNARO: That's correct. They were a strategic Guard and Reserve, and they declared they were operational, and yet none of the laws, rules, regulations, policies, procedures, personnel management, funding, or equipment funding have been made to make them truly operational.

Therefore, that's why we concluded that it's not sustainable and, if we don't make these changes that the capability of the Guard and Reserve to meet these requirements will continue to deteriorate over time.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Give us some -- be more specific about some of the changes that you're saying should have been made.

MAJ. GEN. ARNOLD PUNARO: Well, right now, you can have -- we're in terrible shape, in terms of equipment availability, particularly for the National Guard.

You can have the best-trained troops and the best-led troops, but if you don't have the equipment to do the job, that unit is not going to be as combat-effective as they need to be.

Right now in the United States, 88 percent of the Guard is not combat-ready when it comes to equipment. The National Guard has told us that that's worse, in terms of readiness, than the worst days of the so-called hollow force in the late 70s and early 80s.

And in that time frame, people were in almost a panic about our poor readiness state of our military. And yet here we have Guard units that we need at home, we could need at a moment's notice. We don't know when the next disaster is going to strike.

They don't have their equipment. They don't have the personnel. We've barred personnel to basically send units overseas, and they've left behind with units that are not up to full strength in terms of personnel.

JUDY WOODRUFF: How could this have happened?

MAJ. GEN. ARNOLD PUNARO: I think it's a combination and accumulative effect of events. It's the fact that the overseas commitments have gone on longer than anyone anticipated.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Iraq?

MAJ. GEN. ARNOLD PUNARO: The fact that we've had -- Iraq and Afghanistan. The fact that we've added the border mission to the Guard and Reserve. We've added their 9/11 requirements, protections in airports. And we've had some major disasters here at home where the Guard has been heavily used.

And so it's the cumulative effect over time. And what we're saying is, it's not sustainable. And so unless we start making these changes now, their ability to basically do the nation's missions, whether it's the away game or the home game, will continue to deteriorate.

Changes to the system

Maj. Gen. Arnold Punaro
U.S. Marine Corps
They're the first responders-in-chiefs back home in their state. They're the ones that the country is going to call on to deal with those disasters, whether they're manmade or natural disasters.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So these changes that you're talking about, better equipment, these other changes in the structure and so forth, just a matter of money?

MAJ. GEN. ARNOLD PUNARO: No, it's not really just a matter of money. In terms of our overall focus on this report, where we're looking at, how do we best defend the nation, and how do we take care of the most pressing threats that we have, it's a combination of things that have to be done.

We've got to certainly improve the readiness of the Guard and Reserve, both in terms of equipment and people. We've got to give the governors more clout in the system and more ability.

They're the first responders-in-chiefs back home in their state. They're the ones that the country is going to call on to deal with those disasters, whether they're manmade or natural disasters.

We've got to get the U.S. Northern Command. This is our military operational command that's now responsible for worrying about protecting the 50 states and our territories. We've got to get them more oriented to homeland defense.

We've got to get our Pentagon to recognize that, just because they're ready to fight overseas and do the war fight, doesn't necessarily mean that they're ready to fight here at home, because it's a totally different situation.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Do you think it is the right system to count on so much of the U.S. warfighting capacity to come from the National Guard and the Reserve?

MAJ. GEN. ARNOLD PUNARO: Well, are you talking about for the overseas mission or the home mission?

JUDY WOODRUFF: Going forward, the overseas mission.

MAJ. GEN. ARNOLD PUNARO: Well, certainly, because of the decrease, the sizable decrease in our active-duty military forces, as you mentioned, at one point, 40 percent of the force in Iraq was made up of Guard and Reserve personnel.

It's not a question of what's right or wrong; it's a question of the practical reality of the situation we find ourselves in. Even if you wanted to dramatically increase the size of the active-duty military, in fact, in the president's budget -- and Secretary Gates has recommended a fairly sizable increase in the size of the active-duty Army and the active-duty Marine Corps, that will take years, years to bring into fruition.

And so, right now, we've got threats that we have to deal with right now, and there are some changes that could be made by the Department of Defense, by the Department of the Homeland Security, to reduce the risk to our citizens here at home.

The potential consequences

Maj. Gen. Arnold Punaro
U.S. Marine Corps
Because of the readiness situation, because of the bureaucratic infighting problems we have in the Washington arena, we have put our citizens at greater risk.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And to be very clear, what happens, do you believe, if those changes are not made?

MAJ. GEN. ARNOLD PUNARO: Well, right now, we're not prepared. We are not prepared for the threats this nation faces here at home. And because in this business you can't be half-ready or half-prepared, you're either ready or you aren't.

And so what we've done by not being ready, because of the readiness situation, because of the bureaucratic infighting problems we have in the Washington arena, we have put our citizens at greater risk. We've put their lives at greater risk, their property, our economy, our way of life, and that's just unacceptable.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally, there are a couple of members of Congress who have put legislation forward. They are recommending some changes. Some of them are saying that your report doesn't go far enough, that the changes you recommend are too modest.

MAJ. GEN. ARNOLD PUNARO: Well, I would say the sponsors of the National Guard legislation that the Congress asked us to look at deserve tremendous credit for, one, identifying the problem.

And I think it's really important that -- we spent most of our report and analytical effort trying to make sure we really identified what the problem set is, because that's what needs to be fixed.

And I'm convinced that the Congress, working with the Department of Defense, Secretary Gates, General Pace, are very forward-leaning in this area, and they want to fix these problems. Working with the National Guard, working with the proponents of this legislation, they're going to come up with probably even better solutions than we have.

I think we've made some fairly sweeping changes. I mean, giving the governors the ability to command active-duty military forces, in my judgment, is a pretty bold stroke.

But we are really focused on fixing the problems, not on whose solution gets picked. So I'm very confident that the Congress and the Department of Defense working together will come up with the right answers.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Arnold Punaro, he is a retired Marine Corps major general, chairman of the Commission on the National Guard and Reserves. Thank you very much.

MAJ. GEN. ARNOLD PUNARO: Thank you, Judy, a privilege to be here.