The war hasn’t started, yet. But unless the regular Army and the National Guard can resolve their differences behind closed doors before the president’s budget request is publicly submitted sometime in February — and prospects are dim — there will be open, brutal conflict on Capitol Hill on a scale not seen since the 1990s.
Just how brutal, the largest Guard advocacy group made clear on Monday morning. After months of restraint in its public statements, the National Guard Association of the United States called out Army Chief of Staff Ray Odierno by name. NGAUS president Gus Hargett, a retired major general, said in a statement that Odierno had “disparaged” the Guard’s readiness for combat in remarks last week at the National Press Club that were “disrespectful and simply not true.”
“I’m surprised by this release,” one Hill staffer told me in a phone call Monday. “I’m surprised by the tone ….I don’t understand why they would make it personal against Odierno at this point.”
But this isn’t personal, it’s tactical. Yes, there is tremendous passion involved. Yes, there is much less hope and much more bitterness on both sides than when I wrote an Army-Guard budget war was “avoidable” back in June. But the NGAUS statement wasn’t simply an outburst of outrage over particular remarks by the Army Chief of Staff. Odierno’s precise words at the Press Club were a pretext, not a reason. In fact, he has been saying the same things and worse about Guard readiness for roughly a year.
So what’s different now? Timing. December’s budget deal on Capitol Hill made clear that the deep budget cuts called sequestration are probably here to stay. February’s budget deadline in the Pentagon means Sec. Chuck Hagel is making final decisions on a 2015 budget request that will probably cut the Guard by 35,000 troops.
“Unfortunately,” said Hargett, “brothers in arms on the battlefield can sometimes become rivals for resources when budgets are tight.”
What triggered NGAUS’s salvo, one association official told me, is “the Army’s insistence that the Guard be 315,000 [soldiers],” compared to 350,000 today. The chief of the National Guard Bureau, Gen. Frank Grass, had put together a counter-proposal to cut just 5,000 Guard soldiers — leaving the force at 345,000 — and make up the required sequestration savings elsewhere. “Both these plans were presented to Sec. Hagel,” the NGAUS official said, “[but] it appears 315 is going to carry the day.”
So the goal of this statement is really to influence the Secretary’s decision? “Yeah,” the NGAUS official said. “Ideally, these [differences] are handled behind the scenes, in negotiation and in discussion among general officers, [but] we’re at the point now where we can’t keep this within the family.”
“The Guard takes no comfort in having to take on the Army in a public forum,” agreed Bill Skipper, who was NGAUS’s legislative director during the budget wars of the late 1990s. “Having said that, we are very comfortable that Gus Hargett is the right guy to take this message to the Hill and then let common sense prevail.”
“To quote ole Yogi, it’s déjà vu all over again,” said Skipper, “just like 1996 and 1997, when the National Guard Association had to wrestle with the Army leadership for constrained resources and force structure.”
“There certainly are parallels,” agreed the NGAUS official. “Are we at that point yet? Not quite. The reason is there’s still an opportunity between now and the time when the president’s budget is dropped to get these things right…. We still have a chance to avoid this but we are getting awfully close.”
“None of this becomes absolutely official until it’s released in the president’s budget,” the official said — and even then, “Congress will have the final say.”
Capitol Hill also happens to be much more the Guard’s home turf than the Pentagon. True, unlike in the 1990s, the chief of the National Guard Bureau is now one of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, which gives him more influence in the Defense Department — but that also limits his ability to lead an insurrection. The current NGB chief, Gen. Grass, has been relentlessly conciliatory and upbeat about Army-Guard relations, even in his remarks to the Press Club just two days after Odierno’s statements that NGAUS found so objectionable.
(What I would love to know and never will is how Grass reacted to NGAUS’s outburst: Did he smile to see an ally say the things he couldn’t, or did he bang his head on his desk because NGAUS’s rhetoric made it harder to reach a compromise?)
Once matters come before the Congress, however, the Guard’s deep local roots in every state and every congressional district give it a huge advantage over the regular active-duty military. Back in 2012, when the Pentagon budget proposed steep cuts in the Air National Guard, Congress absolutely savaged the active-duty Air Force leadership — though they got some of what they wanted in the end. Now it may well be the Army leadership’s turn to be pummeled by Congress.
History doesn’t have to repeat itself, however, said House Armed Services staffer John Wason, speaking to an Association of the US Army conference this morning. ”When the Air Force did this a couple of years ago they kind of threw everything over the fence when the budget came over,” he said — that is, without adequately preparing Congress beforehand. Today, however, Wason went on, “we have a situation here where the Army’s been very engaging — to the extent they can be [given] the budget hasn’t come over yet.”
So the outcome in Congress is hardly foreordained. NGAUS’s blast at Odierno is the first shot in the war for Capitol Hill as much as it is a last-ditch attempt to win a losing battle in the Pentagon.
“This all about timing,” Skipper told me. “If Gen. Odierno is going to take a swipe at the Guard, he’s got to do it now [because] we’re coming into a congressional season …Gen. Odierno is now testing the message he plans to take to the oversight committees and Gus Hargett’s role is to counter any half-truths before they become policy statements before these committees.”
Of course, the pro-regular-Army camp could say the exact same thing about the Guard — and does:
“NGAUS… will demonize the AC [active component] in the shrillest possible terms in order to mobilize members of Congress to block or overturn [budget] decisions,” said one source deeply skeptical of the Guard. “And putting words – hateful, hurtful, mean, bullying words — into the mouth of the CSA [Chief of Staff of the Army]/CSAF [Chief of Staff of the Air Force] is a drill they have used and will use over and over with National Guard members and the Hill.”
“The climate of intimidation has OSD [Office of the Secretary of Defense]/Army/Air Force leaders so balled up they are approaching conditioned helplessness,” continued the Guard critic. “Come on…. You guys have to challenge these overstatements.”
So what did Odierno actually say? Last week, he simply told the Press Club that Guard units were “not interchangeable” with active-duty counterparts, which have “a higher level of readiness” because Guard units only train “39 days a year.”
Odierno’s 39-day figure is indeed misleading, because many if not most Guard personnel put in much more time than the “one weekend a month, two weeks a year” that they’re paid for and legally required to perform. So it’s understandable that Guard and for that matter Reserve personnel would feel insulted. At least Odierno didn’t repeat his frankly ludicrous assertion that it would take “two years” to mobilize and deploy Guard combat units to a war in Korea. Even the largest and most complex Guard formations would take no more than 110 days to mobilize “in the worst case,” Gen. Grass told the Press Club.
Nevertheless, it is true that Guard and Reserve troops do train less than active-duty counterparts, by definition, precisely because the military is not their full-time job. That means they are indeed less ready day-to-day and do take longer to get ready to deploy. After 12 years of war, more Guard and Reserve soldiers than ever are battle-hardened veterans, but many military skills are perishable, and even heroes need a refresher course.
“I heard what the Chief said; he wasn’t ‘disparaging’ the Guard,” said the Hill staffer we quoted earlier in this article. “I don’t see what the controversy is there. They’re not supposed to be as quickly deployable as active troops.”
Once Guard units do go through their pre-deployment training, they are considered “interchangeable” with active-duty ones, and the two have fought side-by-side for over a decade.
“The bottom line is that National Guard forces are cost-effective, accessible when needed, trained to the same standards and indistinguishable on the battlefield from their active duty counterparts,” said one Guard source. “They are interchangeable where it matters most. Both Gen. Grass and NGAUS made those points, in their own ways.”
Gen. Odierno and the regular Army, by contrast, carefully avoid terms like “interchangeable” or “indistinguishable.”
“The Army values the contributions of all three components and what the Total Army has accomplished over the past 13 years of conflict,” Army spokesman George Wright told me in an email. ” All three components are critical and complementary to each other.” (Emphasis mine). “However, we must adjust our force structure among all three components” — active, Guard, and Army Reserve — “to balance end strength, readiness, and modernization.”
One of the things the Army must rebalance is the regular active duty force and the Army Guard. “We kind of got out of balance during the war,” said Lt. Gen. James Barclay, the Army’s Deputy Chief of Staff for resourcing (staff section G-8), speaking to the AUSA conference this morning. After growing to 570,000 active-duty troops, for the first time in years, the Army actually had more “active component” personnel than “reserve component” — i.e. the Army Guard and Army Reserve take together: 52 percent AC, 48% RC. Now the service is giving back that wartime growth and aims to return to the traditional ratio of 46 percent AC, 54 percent RC.
But Guard advocates argue the ratio should be even more in favor of the reserve component than 46:54. “What’s magical about that ratio?” asked the NGAUS official. “Study after study indicates that you can maintain an Army Guardsman for one-third the money, even less.” (That’s when they’re not mobilized and deployed; even when deployed, however, they’re slightly cheaper because they don’t accrue retirement benefits at the same rate). The argument is that you need full-time troops for crisis response, sure, but for any sizable conflict you can get Guard troops ready in time. In the meantime, while you’re not at war, they’re much cheaper to keep on the payroll.
“When you have less expensive troops that can perform because they are interchangeable, why are you cutting them?” asked the NGAUS official. “We’re cutting our least expensive asset. No business would do that.”
The NGAUS position, in effect, is that the Guard should not be cut at all. “Many of us in the Guard community feel that Army Guard’s force structure and end strength numbers should be constant over time and the active Army’s numbers should fluctuate based on the threat,” Bill Skipper told me. “I truly believe this is what the founding fathers had as their intent.”
The active-duty Army is certainly “fluctuating”: It’s coming down from a wartime high of 570,000 soldiers to 490,000 by the end of this year. That is still (slightly) “above pre-9/11 levels,” Hargett noted in his Monday statement. But saying “there will be 490,000 soldiers in the active-duty Army” is at least as misleading as “the Guard only trains 39 days a year,” because no one in or out of the Army thinks the cuts will stop at 490,000. The final figure is in debate, but Odierno himself has said that, by 2019, full sequestration would probably bring the Army down to around 420,000.
“We have funding against a 420 force,” said Lt. Gen. Barclay. The service is still pushing back on that, he emphasized: “We think 450 is the lowest we can go.”
Do the math: The active duty Army is resigned to losing at least another 40,000 soldiers and on the current plan will lose 65,000– nearly twice the 35,000 that Odierno is asking the Guard to give up.
“The overall cuts to the Army are going to be large; the Guard guys are going to sound a bit petty,” said the Hill staffer. The US Army Reserve is being cut too, probably to about 185,000 soldiers, he noted, but “you haven’t heard grousing from them.
Of course, keeping the cuts fair and equitable is not the point, or at least it shouldn’t be: What matters is getting the most combat power that the nation can afford.
But even that is not a simple calculation. The best mix of active-duty, Guard, and Reserve soldiers depends on both arcane fiscal calculations and unprovable assumptions about what we’ll really need in the next war. If the professionals in the Pentagon can’t make a compromise that sticks, it will be up to Congress — where the loudest voices tend to prevail.
If the debate degenerates into who’s better and who’s more important, the regular Army or the National Guard, “we’ve already lost,” said Wason, the HASC staffer. ”That’s a false choice. The fact of the matter is we need both. They’re both critical.”
Updated 1:15 pm with John Wason’s comments.
[A clarification: Some readers apparently assumed that HASC staffer John Wason, who spoke publicly and on the record, was the same as the anonymous "Hill staffer" also quoted in the story. They are in fact two different individuals with two different opinions, and I've edited their respective identifications to make this clearer. My apologies for the confusion. -- Sydney Freedberg, 1/16/2014].