After six years at war, some Army National Guard units are still struggling with less than half the equipment they need to do their jobs at home, the top Guard general said Wednesday. He said it will take an extra $13 billion over the next five years to get them 90 percent of the gear they need.
Lt. Gen. H. Steven Blum, chief of the National Guard, said that while Guard units heading to Iraq and Afghanistan have all the necessary equipment, all units at home are short at least 30 percent of the equipment they need. The low end is 33 percent, and 50 percent is the average, he said.
Blum also joined other military leaders in criticizing congressional efforts to legislate the length of troop deployments or rest times. While the thought is well-intentioned, he said, it would be “unhelpful,” and the unintended effects could make things worse rather than better.
'Bidding war' for soldiers
In a wide-ranging discussion, Blum also said the Guard often finds itself in a “bidding war” to keep special operations soldiers from leaving to join the more lucrative security firms, such as Blackwater USA.
The Guard has two special forces units — including about 5,000 soldiers headquartered in Alabama and Utah — and Blum said they are “constantly being recruited” by security companies. Blackwater, the main provider of security escorts for U.S. government workers and other business contractors in Iraq, was banned from working in Iraq after an incident this week in which as many as 11 Iraqi civilians were killed.
The Guard and the U.S. Army have offered special forces soldiers large bonuses to stay in the military, in an effort to keep their specialized skills.
“When you lose one, it’s not insignificant,” said Blum.
He maintained, however, that one of his main concerns is the need to fully equip the Guard, so state units can meet any emergencies — from hurricanes and tornadoes to terrorist attacks.
Blum has sounded the same alarm on Capitol Hill for several years, warning that Guard units sapped by deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan, often end up with equipment worn out by war or, in many cases, simply left on battlefields.
Official says Air, Army Guard need $22 billion more
In addition to the $21 billion already budgeted for the next five years, Blum said the Army Guard will need another $13.1 billion for equipment and the Air Guard will need about $8.8 billion for equipment over that time.
That money, he said, would give the Guard 90 percent of the needed equipment, which would be an acceptable level.
In the event of a sudden natural disaster or terror attack, Blum said, the Guard “must have the equipment in their hands when the event happens so they can immediately respond. ... There’s no time to start moving it from neighboring states and drawing it from consolidated sites as some people have suggested.”
Right now, Blum said, about 18 percent of the Army soldiers in Iraq are Guard members — just slightly lower than the percentage of the soldiers serving in Afghanistan. That number is dramatically lower than Guard force levels during part of 2005, when the Guard soldiers made up about 50 percent of the force in Iraq.
“If the nation requires us to do more, we will do more. Are you asking me, are we in our comfort zone? No we’re not. Are we stretched? Absolutely. Are we broken? No. Will we break? I don’t think so,” he said.
At least four Guard units are scheduled for deployments next year, and Blum said officials are working on consolidating their training so they will be deployed no longer than 12 months.
Under new Pentagon policy, Guard members will serve on active duty for just one year, down from what has been 18 months. Shortening the deployments will force Guard soldiers to jam more war preparation into their routine monthly training exercises at home.
Over time, Blum said the Guard should reach the point where it could maintain about 60,000 members deployed overseas each year, without too much strain on the force.