[Updated and corrected 11:45 pm] WASHINGTON: The powerful National Guard Association of the US today denounced an unnamed “handful of House Armed Services Committee members” who, it says, are trying to use the ongoing House-Senate conference on the National Defense Authorization Act to reinstate cuts to the Air National Guard. The Air Force proposed reducing Guard personnel and planes in its 2013 budget, but both chambers roundly rejected the cuts in their versions of the NDAA passed earlier this year and forbade the Air Force from retiring almost any aircraft.
[Updated: It’s notoriously hard to learn exactly what’s happening in conference, but one House staffer told Breaking Defense that “the Guard Association’s release is based, at best, on rumor and incomplete information.”]
“We’re not sure what’s being proposed in conference [exactly],” NGAUS president Gus Hargett, a retired major general, told Breaking Defense this afternoon. “We’d like language that freezes us right where we are today” — as provided for in both the House and Senate versions of the NDAA — “and takes an independent commission to go back and look at the structure of what should be in each component of the Air Force” — a proposal found only in the Senate version.
The Air Force is anxious to reduce costs without reducing its active-duty forces. The service’s new Chief of Staff, Gen. Mark Welsh, admitted the original proposal was “simply not executable” in the face of Congressional opposition. But the Air Force has kept trying to find some compromise level of reductions. Its most recent offer, made earlier in December and backed by Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, would cut the Air National Guard aircraft by 70 percent of what it proposed in its original budget and personnel by only 30 percent of that first proposal. [Corrected 11:45 pm to give separate figures for personnel and aircraft].
That smaller cut leaves many states untouched, and it appears the Air Force is trying to break those states out of the Guard coalition — or at least to tell the House that they’ve broken ranks.
“I’m trying to cut off misinformation that has been provided, I think, by some Air Force staffers to some of the staffers in the House and to a few House members,” Hargett told Breaking Defense. Those unnamed Air Force staff, he said, are telling the House that at least some states are okay with the new, smaller level of cuts.
Not so, said Hargett. “The Adjutants-General [the top officers of each state’s Guard] and all of the governors have stuck together,” he said — and the only level of cuts they’ll accept in this year’s bill is zero.
“The Air Force compromise that they offered recently [restores] 70 percent of the personnel cuts and 30 percent of the aircraft,” compared to the original budget proposal, Hargett acknowledged. “[But] when we take the next round of cuts, they’re going to go right back after the same old aircraft…. It just keeps kicking the can down the road.”
What the Guard Association wants is not a regular annual battle over funding but a once-and-for-all commission, like the one proposed by the Senate, to conduct a comprehensive review of the Air Force across the Guard, Reserve, and active duty components.
“I don’t think it’s the ideal solution,” Hargett said of the proposed commission, “but it may be the only way to get an honest evaluation…. It can’t be a mission that the Air Force runs, because they will predetermine the outcome.”
What’s happening on the Hill is murky: Neither committee would comment for the record at press time, and even normally talkative staffers refused to be quoted on background, so strict is the omerta of the conference. And the looming threat of sequestration could render the authorization bill largely moot. But what is already clear is the collapse of trust between the active-duty Air Force and the Guard.