WASHINGTON: Gen. Frank Grass, the chief of the National Guard Bureau, seemed pretty chipper this morning over breakfast. That’s something you would not have seen from the Guard’s leadership the last time America faced a major drawdown to its armed forces, when the Guard and the regular Army engaged in fratricidal budget battles. This time round, Grass made clear, the two sides of the service have kept the peace — so far.
While other Army generals are increasingly glum about looming cutbacks to the active-duty force, Gen. Grass has less cause for alarm. That’s because both politics and economics have so far protected both the Army and Air National Guard from significant cuts.
The politics are pretty simple. State governors want robust Guard units they can call up in case of natural disaster and legislators prize their local armories so they work with their federal representatives and senators to make sure those forces are not cut. The economics are that it’s much cheaper to pay a Guard soldier to train part-time than to fund pay and benefits for a regular active-duty soldier 365 days a year, and you still can count on the Guardsman in event of a big war. (How long he takes to get ready to go, however, is a complex question).
Pentagon leaders know very well that cutting 1,000 active troops saves a lot more money with a lot less political agony than cutting 1,000 from the Guard, as the Air Force re-learned the hard way last year. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel himself has said publicly that he’s considering relying more heavily on the Guard.
But while some thinktankers, lobbyists, and officers want to actually boost the Guard at the expense of the active duty force, Grass is saying no to that option — at least for now. To the contrary, he’s telling his people they have to share some of the regular Army’s pain.
At this morning’s Defense Writers Group breakfast, one reporter asked Grass about growing the Guard.
“There’s a few states’ adjutants-general that have proposed that, and what I have told all the adjutants general is that, in this fiscal environment, and realizing Budget Control Act is the law, every January a percentage of our appropriation goes away. So even [if] we grew the Army Guard, we’re not getting any new money unless somebody changes the law,” said Gen. Grass. “So it’s very difficult for me to support a plan that grows it.”
In fact, Grass went on, “we have offered to the Army some reductions” in Guard manpower to help pay for the ongoing Budget Control Act cuts, popularly known as sequestration: “It does bring us down a bit.”
That said, Grass mused, “for the nation, it could be a good thing in the long term” to have a larger Guard. “Look at what the British just did with their Territorial [Army], which is [now] their Army Reserve: They actually grew it trying to save money and bring down the active a bit.”
“But for me right now and the situation we’re in,” Grass went on, “if we can figure out how to pay the bill and retain as much capability and capacity that we can for the nation and for the governors, that’s my goal.”
When Grass says “we” there, he clearly means not only Guard leadership but their active-duty counterparts in both the Army and the Air Force. “The dialogue has never been better,” he enthused. “There’s nothing off the table. We can even agree to disagree.”
So far, the Army has carefully minimized cuts to its Guard component even as its active-duty force is dropping by 80,000 from its wartime peak, with deeper cuts certain to come. Air Force leaders, by contrast, went behind closed doors and came out with a plan to cut the Air Guard that infuriated Congress and state governors, although the final National Defense Authorization Act for 2013 allowed some of the cuts.
The new Air Force Chief of Staff, Gen. Mark Welsh, promised in his Senate confirmation hearing to consult closely with the Guard and to conduct an open discussion of any future changes to the force. Grass says Welsh has been as good as his word: “I have not signed a single non-disclosure statement in the 15 months I’ve been in the job.”
Then there’s the ongoing Quadrennial Defense Review, which will shape plans for the entire future force. “At this point it would be premature to say anything at all” about the QDR recommendations, Grass aid, “[but] we are actually well represented on all working groups for the QDR.”
What’s more, Grass reminded the reporters, “I sit on the Joint Chiefs [of Staff].” He’s only the second National Guard Bureau chief to do so and the first to be a JCS member from the moment of his confirmation. Yet, said Grass, JCS Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey asks him to comment and vote on every issue, from improving homeland defense — which is the Guard’s specialty — to reorganizing the theater commands around the world — which is definitely not.
“Every member of the Joint Chiefs has welcomed me as a full member,” Grass said, “[and] Gen. Dempsey has been phenomenal.” And when something happens in the homeland — like the Boston Marathon bombings this April or the tornado in Illinois this week — Grass’s position on the Joint Chiefs lets him rush on-the-ground reports and requests for aid to the top levels of the Pentagon at a pace the National Guard Bureau never could achieve before.
As important as state and homeland defense missions are, however, Grass emphasized that the Guard wants to keep deploying abroad as well. The Guard never wants to go back to the “break glass in time of war” force it was before 1991. “I lived the ‘strategic reserve’ in the Guard in the ’70s,” Grass said, recalling undermanned units, obsolete equipment, and mediocre training. By the mid-eighties, however, Guard units began doing small-scale deployments abroad as part of their 21-day annual training period. (Grass himself went to Honduras in 1986). After 9/11, they became an all-out “operational reserve,” trained and equipped to the same standard as their active-duty counterparts and used indistinguishably on the ground in Afghanistan and Iraq, although Guard soldiers deployed less often.
As the wars wind down, Grass wants to go back to the ’90s-style short deployments to keep the Guard engaged and morale high. There’s already a Guard brigade in the Army’s “Regionally Aligned Forces,” which is “aligned” specifically to Southern Command (SOUTHCOM) and set to deploy teams to Latin American countries in a revival of the old arrangements.
Guard partisans were in an uproar when regular active-duty units took over missions in Sinai and Bosnia long handled by Guard troops, but Grass downplayed that as a temporary measure driven by short-term “fiscal realities.” While Guard units are much cheaper day-to-day than are their active-duty counterparts, they need more time and money to get ready once they are ordered to deploy.
But Grass said those call-up timelines keep getting shorter. Train-up time was a major problem in 1990-1991, when two Guard brigades were mobilized but never made it to the Gulf. Even in the last decade, Guard units took months to get ready. Regular Army inefficiencies created at least some of the delay in both those cases, but much of the time was spent simply issuing up-to-date equipment, training on it, and getting Guard troops up to Army standards on a host of administrative and medical matters, most notoriously dental care. (Yes, the Army won’t send troops to war if they have cavities. Maybe they’re worried about trench mouth?). After years of generous wartime funding and real-life combat experience, however, those problems have been solved, Grass said, and the Guard is up to the same standards as the active-duty force.
That significantly shortens deployment time, Grass said, from 100 to 150 days for Iraq and Afghanistan to 50 to 80 days for future missions. And those figures are for full-up combat brigades — big units with 3,000 to 5,000 soldiers who need not only individual training in skills very different from their civilian jobs (there are no private-sector infantrymen or tank gunners) but also collective training in complex, large-scale maneuvers. A smaller unit that uses less military-specific skills — a supply truck unit whose members are mostly truck drivers in civilian life — can get ready to go much faster. “The minimum is probably about 30 days for the smaller company size units that [do] logistics,” Grass said.
The exact timeline from call-up to deployment would depend on the mission. But the faster a Guard unit can respond to a crisis scenario, the more viable it is as an alternative to an active-duty unit — especially as budget cuts force the regular Army’s readiness to decay.