Guard Controversies

April 1, 1998
In their camouflage field uniforms, Brig. Gen. Paul R. Cooper and Col. Willie Jones seem very much alike. Both are tall and middle-aged, sporting crew cuts graying at the temples, and each displays a sense of command bespeaking years of experience. Each serves in a reserve component of the Total Force.

Cooper, however, is a member of the Air Force Reserves, which, with the Air National Guard, provides the reserve capability of the Air Force. Jones serves in the Army National Guard. As a result, their experiences, responsibilities, and relationships with active duty counterparts are worlds apart.

In 1996, Air Force officials placed Cooper, then a colonel, in charge of Tuzla AB in Bosnia. Cooper, in command of active, Air National Guard, and AFRC units, coordinated all activities at the central air hub for US forces deployed on the Balkan peacekeeping mission. Though Cooper’s position carried great responsibility, neither he nor his troops thought it unusual that USAF gave the job to him, a Reservist.

“In fact, most people don’t even realize I’m in the Reserves or that we have nine other Reservists and Air National Guardsmen in positions of responsibility here at Tuzla,” said Cooper at the time.

He went on, “Because I am a Reservist and have not spent much time rotating through staff positions during my career, I have more experience managing at the wing level and more flying hours than any of my active duty counterparts.”

Jones has a different story to tell.

In his 22 years in the Army National Guard, his unit has never been activated for a live contingency. That unit, 103d Combat Engineers Battalion, is part of the Pennsylvania National Guard’s 28th Infantry Division (Mechanized). The 28th is one of the eight Guard combat divisions which the Army says are so superfluous to US military demands of the post-Cold War era that they don’t even appear on any official war plans.

The estrangement of the ARNG from the Regular Army is so great that, for more than five years, Jones has had virtually no contact with his active duty counterparts.

Not Happy

“The problem with combat elements in the National Guard is that there’s very little chance that we’ll ever get called up for a contingency to use the skills we train for as a unit, and we’re not happy about that,” said Jones, who in civilian life is a Philadelphia parole official.

As part of the Army cost-cutting campaign of recent years, the Army has even eliminated exchange programs between active and Army National Guard officers in his unit.

“It’s a shame the Army doesn’t do that anymore,” Jones remarked, “because those exchanges kept you from getting an ‘us-and-them’ attitude. When we worked together the active Army could see that we’re committed just like they are.”

The clashing experiences of Cooper and Jones are indicative of a wider split that continues to confound Pentagon and service leaders. While the regular Air Force and its reserve components–Air Force Reserve Command and Air National Guard–enjoy what is viewed as a close-knit and respectful working relationship, Army-ARNG ties have plummeted to a historic low.

Today’s tension stems from threats to force structure and personnel. The Regular Army, as part of the Pentagon’s Quadrennial Defense Review in 1997, decided to cut Army National Guard strength by 38,000 positions. This sparked open political warfare between the two components that, with the Army Reserve, make up the Total Army.

Senior Army leaders reasoned that it was time for ARNG to give blood, as the other components had. In the years since the end of the Cold War, they noted, the active duty force had been reduced by 35.7 percent and the Army Reserve (which is a wholly federal organization) by 34.8 percent. In contrast, the Army National Guard had been cut 19.7 percent.

Convinced that the Army had purposely left them out of the QDR’s final decision-making process, the Guard leadership lashed out with an open and unusually vitriolic campaign to reverse the QDR findings. The effort was spearheaded by the state adjutants general, those senior National Guard leaders who normally report not through the military chain of command but to state governors (unless activated by the federal government).

Nearly half of the nation’s governors wrote to President Clinton to protest the 38,000 cut in Guard strength. Further inflaming the split was an unusually harsh public statement issued jointly by the Adjutants General Association of the United States and National Guard Association of the United States. The paper, called “National Military Strategy and the Rebuttable Presumption,” contained the following allegation: “Because of the Army Staff’s obstinate shortsightedness, the Total Army that won the Cold War is on the brink of extinction. The Army Staff’s obvious personal desire to eliminate the Army National Guard as military competition [left] the adjutants general shocked by the entire process.”

Congress Steps In

This open defiance infuriated Army leaders, but Guard leaders received a sympathetic hearing on Capitol Hill, where the Guard traditionally has enjoyed wide support. Some lawmakers openly sided with the Guard, noting in the process the wide and deep differences in the Air Force and Army experiences.

“We’re proud of how the Air Force and Air Guard work together,” pointedly declared Sen. Christopher Bond (R-Mo.), co-chair of the National Guard Caucus. Bond went on to note, “The Army doesn’t seem to have figured out yet how important the National Guard is as a mobile ready reserve. Given that you can maintain a National Guard unit at 25 to 30 percent of the cost of an active unit, I think they are going to become increasingly important as budgets contract.”

Since the release of the QDR, Pentagon and Army officials have been in a defensive crouch, trying to quell the rancorous debate and do something about the obviously growing rift between the Regular Army and the Army National Guard.

Their job has been dramatically complicated by increased Congressional entanglement in the dispute. A group of lawmakers led by Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) moved to raise the head of the National Guard to four-star level and give him a position on the Joint Chiefs of Staff. At present, the National Guard is led by a three-star Army National Guard officer, Lt. Gen. Edward D. Baca.

Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen rejected this idea, and it failed in Congress-this time. Instead, Cohen announced the establishment of two new JCS staff positions, each to be filled by two-star generals from the National Guard and Reserves. Each will serve as special assistants to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and will advise on Guard and Reserve matters.

Last summer, Cohen also ordered the Army to hold an “off-site” caucus bringing together Regular Army, Army National Guard, and Army Reserve leaders, the goal of which was a compromise solution to the QDR force-cut issue. The deal that emerged from that meeting called for the Regular Army to take, as planned, its entire QDR troop cut of 15,000 in the next three years. In that same period, the Army National Guard was to give up 17,000 troops–not 38,000–and the Army Reserve 3,000.

Army leaders insist that they did not back away from the QDR’s plans, which envisioned slicing away the additional 21,000 ARNG troops by 2002. In their view, those cuts are still in the cards for future years. However, Army Guard leaders exited the off-site meeting with the clear belief that they had staved off those cuts and would revisit the whole matter at a later time.

The ARNG view was summarized in this way by Maj. Gen. William A. Navas Jr., director of the Army National Guard Bureau in the Pentagon: “Our position is that the 17,000 cut … will bring us to about 350,000 troops, which we think is basically the level necessary to have a viable National Guard.”

False View

ARNG officials maintain that the Regular Army has misrepresented its position on the matter of force cuts. “We’re being widely depicted as recalcitrant [because of] our effort to retain combat force structure,” said Navas, “but remember that we’re talking about American citizens fighting for the right to bear arms and possibly die for their country.”

Throughout the controversy, policy-makers and members of Congress have continually asked Army leaders why they can’t take a page out of the Air Force’s book and use it to develop more amicable relations with the Army Guard.

It is true, as the Army often notes, that there are substantive differences between the Army and Air Force missions and organization, and these make it hard to draw direct comparisons. However, a number of Air National Guard experts maintain that the Army could observe the Air Force and learn some valuable lessons.

The first of these lessons, they say, would be this: The project of integrating the service elements has a better chance of succeeding if the regular force leaders accept the reserve components’ commitment and ability to perform the mission. They say that, in the Air Force, that kind of attitude is only too evident, in ways both obvious and subtle.

Here is the view of Maj. Gen. Ronald O. Harrison, an Air National Guardsman and Florida adjutant general: “Call it culture or a mind-set, but if you ask an Air Force officer how many fighter wing equivalents the service has, he’ll say, ‘Twenty.’ He won’t say, ‘Thirteen active and seven reserve.’ Ask an Army officer how many divisions the Army has, and he’ll say, ‘Ten.’ But that’s not true. The Army has 18 divisions–10 active duty and eight National Guard.”

Harrison believes the issue boils down to loyalty.

“Most National Guardsmen,” he said, “are proud to wear the Army uniform, and they want the Army to succeed. And while the Air Force has proved it wants the Air National Guard to succeed, the active component Army has yet to prove that it wants the Army National Guard to succeed.”

Brig. Gen. Daniel James III of the Air National Guard recalls being struck by the Regular Army’s attitude toward the Guard when he first assumed responsibilities as Texas adjutant general.


Said James: “I can remember coming into a meeting and asking my Army National Guard commanders what their wartime mission was and who they would be chopped to in an emergency. The chief of staff looked at me and said that our Guard division didn’t have a mission. I said, ‘My God, man, how can that be? Do you realize what the active duty Army is telling you?’ “

The issue of the readiness and capability of the Army National Guard’s eight combat divisions lies at the center of the present controversy.

Citing studies prepared by the General Accounting Office, Rand Corp., and DoD’s 1995 Commission on Roles and Missions, the Army concluded that the Army National Guard has significant excess combat force structure. Army leaders estimate that it would take nine to 12 months to bring a National Guard heavy combat division to wartime readiness. For this reason, the Army and Joint Chiefs of Staff continue to resist writing the eight Guard divisions into the US war plans even in a worst-case scenario of having to fight two major regional wars nearly simultaneously.

War planners and a number of independent experts say the need for such a large “strategic reserve” largely disappeared with the collapse of the Warsaw Pact and Soviet Union.

And, Army officials say, the divisions could become even more irrelevant and underfunded in the future unless the National Guard accedes to an Army request to reshape its heavy combat divisions into less expensive light infantry units.

Besides making the Guard divisions better suited to missions such as those seen in Somalia, Haiti, and Bosnia, he said, such a restructuring would also facilitate 28,000 of the Army National Guard’s troop cuts dictated by the QDR.

Regular Army officers are cynical about where the debate might be headed. “We know that the National Guard considers its combat divisions as the coin of the realm,” said a senior Army general. “The chief of staff of the Army has said to the National Guard, ‘If you will reconfigure the combat divisions from heavy to light, we will give you more real-world missions than you can stand,’ and forever put to rest this argument about their relevance. Unfortunately, that proposition has fallen on deaf ears. The National Guard has refused to consider it, out of hand.”

While the issue of the National Guard’s eight combat divisions remains unresolved, Army officials insist that progress has been made in recent years in attempting to make Guard units more relevant and ready. Under a 1996 division redesign agreement, for instance, the Army began transitioning 12 National Guard combat brigades into much needed support units. Under a “first to fight” funding scheme, the service invested $17.4 billion to modernize the Army National Guard between Fiscal 1992 and 1997. The program includes 15 “enhanced” combat brigades established in 1993 and written into present war plans.

“A lot of this comes down to some very tough choices in terms of resource allocation and the fact that we’re trying to spread the hurt of budget cuts as best [as] we possibly can,” said Army Chief of Staff Gen. Dennis J. Reimer, speaking to defense reporters. “But if you look at our funding of the National Guard and Army Reserves as a percentage of our Total Obligation Authority, it’s now at the second highest level it’s been in the 35 years I’ve served. So while the relationship between the Army and National Guard has not been the best in the last year or so, one of my top priorities is to listen to everyone’s concerns and to make sure everybody understands our commitment to the Total Army.”

Bigger Problem

Reserve force structure, the resources devoted to it, and the impact on readiness are central to the differences between the Army and Air National Guard. Even Guard proponents, for instance, note that the Army has far more reserve structure to support than does the Air Force. “In all fairness, the Air Guard and Reserves only comprise about one-third of the Air Force, while the Army Guard and Reserve comprise roughly 55 percent of the Army,” said Baca, the chief of the National Guard Bureau in the Pentagon.

However, Baca believes that the Army could benefit from adopting the Air Force practice of conducting objective readiness tests for all units in the reserves. He said such a test in the Army might go a long way toward dispelling concerns among active duty officers that Army National Guard units are not ready for prime-time combat roles.

And such a change in attitude can, in fact, occur. USAF’s Chief of Staff, Gen. Michael E. Ryan, points out that, as World War II ended, the drive for a separate Air Force was in full gear, but proponents of a separate Air Force saw little role for the Air National Guard in their vision of the post-World War II Air Force. “The Air National Guard was virtually forced on a newborn Air Force by political pressure,” Ryan said. “In those early years, there was very little understanding or trust between the active duty and the Guard.” Ryan pointed out that one Air Force general even referred to the Air National Guard as “flyable storage.”

That attitude was dramatically changed over the years, given great impetus by the establishment in 1973 of the Total Force policy.

“When the Total Force policy was first established, the Air Force made a conscious decision to accept the Air National Guard and to administer objective readiness tests,” said Baca. “If a unit is found not to be ready in the Air National Guard, then the Air Force officers in charge of overseeing their training are held accountable. The Army has not reached the point yet where it is willing to administer an objective readiness test to its reserve units.”

Establishing a reliable readiness test for Army National Guard units, say experts, might avoid a disastrous replay of 1990 when the Army, on the brink of the Gulf War, balked at mobilizing two Guard combat “round-out” brigades to complete the structure of two divisions, as called for in war plans.

The Army eventually sent the Guard’s 48th Infantry Brigade, based at Ft. Stewart, Ga., to the National Training Center in Ft. Irwin, Calif., for post-mobilization training during Desert Shield. After it was put through its paces, the Army relieved the unit’s commander and said the brigade was unfit to fight. Much of the bad blood so evident between the active Army and National Guard today can be traced directly back to that decision.

Forced to Fail

One who says so is retired ANG Maj. Gen. Edward J. Philbin, executive director of the National Guard Association in Washington. “That’s when much of the present mistrust started, because after [Desert Storm], I became convinced the Army would never call up a Guard combat unit. They foresaw the coming drawdown and didn’t want us to prove we could, in fact, fight.”

Experts believe there are critical differences between the Air Force and Army in the training and mission orientation of the reserve components. It has long been noted that Air National Guard units frequently prevail over their active duty counterparts in airdrop and fighter competitions. This is largely credited to the experience level in reserve units, which are composed of prior-service personnel, and the fact that their members may work together in tandem for many years.

Those units do not excel, however, as a result of the standard reserve training period of one weekend per month and one annual two-week reserve training tour, according to ANG Maj. Gen. Tandy K. Bozeman, adjutant general of California.

Bozeman observed, “When the Air Force initially came to the Air National Guard 20 years ago and said it wanted us to shoulder more of the mission, we initially said it wasn’t possible. Over the years, however, the nature of the Air Guard units changed. You routinely have pilots today who love to fly and who spend 100 days a year flying as Guardsmen. They essentially have two part-time jobs. One is civilian, and one is with the Air Guard.”

The general added, “I think if the Army did the same thing with its Guard units, and funded them appropriately, it would be surprised at how elastic they are in conforming to the mission.”

Army officials note, however, that while most communities have an air base within reasonable commute for pilots who want to fly on their off time, not many National Guard armories are within easy drive of a combat maneuver range.

It is also generally acknowledged that the closer a reservist’s civilian job is to his or her military speciality-be it as a mechanic or civilian airline pilot-the easier it is to quickly make the transition from civilian life to active duty in an emergency.

Reimer, the Army chief of staff, maintained that this poses a serious problem for the Army, compared to the Air Force.

“I think the relationship of the Air Force and its reserves is very, very good, and we’re also working on being able to more quickly transition reserve component units that have civilian skills that lend themselves to military skills,” said the Army’s leader. “I think we can do that with truck companies, but I don’t know of any civilian equivalent of a tank crew. Those skills atrophy over time, and we have to conduct post-mobilization training to regain them.”

More Complexity

Army officials also believe that there is a different dynamic to ground warfare that makes it more difficult to train reserve units to a high state of readiness. While the individual skills taught in the Air National Guard and Reserves are more difficult to master, they say, the unit coordination is more complex for ground maneuver units.

“What the Air Force focuses on is taking individuals and training them to be proficient members of a crew on a piece of machinery, and they are superb at it,” said a senior Army general. “The Army focuses on training as a unit in synchronized ground maneuver warfare, where you are simultaneously fighting the close fight, bringing in artillery and close air support, reconstituting and resupplying your force on the move, and at the same time planning the next fight. That’s a much harder problem in terms of keeping a reservist trained and ready.”

As a result of that complexity, the Army has essentially taken a cue from the Marine Corps on integrating its reserves. The Marines have long focused on integrating reservists primarily at the small unit level and in keeping a cadre of active duty officers and noncommissioned officers permanently assigned to its reserve units as trainers and instructors.

“I am a proponent of integrating reserve units at the lowest level possible, because the more sophisticated tasks in terms of battle integration and synchronization are done at the higher levels,” said Reimer. “Above brigade level you start to get into the business of synchronizing direct and indirect fires with a lot of electrons flying around the battlefield. That’s a pretty complicated business that requires a great deal of training, skill, and coordination.”

At the direction of Congress, the Army is introducing some 5,000 officers and noncommissioned officers into reserve units, including all 15 of the Guard’s enhanced combat brigades.

“As I travel around to the field and talk to our reserve component personnel, they tell me that that program has been very successful,” said Reimer. “Ultimately, the bottom line is that everybody now accepts the fact that those Army National Guard enhanced brigades will contribute to our warfighting. We’ve funded them under our first-to-fight philosophy.”

Besides improving the readiness and capability of the National Guard enhanced brigades, the program will have the added benefit of spurring closer interaction between the active Army and Army National Guard. Only after both components of the Total Army routinely get their boots dirty together will they draw back the veil of suspicion and distrust that has arisen between them.

“If you don’t have firsthand interaction between the active Army and National Guard, so we can show them what we’re capable of, the active officers are going to continue to form judgments and harbor perceptions that are wrong,” said ARNG Maj. Gen. Richard C. Alexander, adjutant general of Ohio and president of the National Guard Association. “We will never solve this problem as long as there’s a wedge between the active component and the National Guard.”

Fiscal 1999 End Strengths (Proposed)

Service Active Duty Guard/Reserve %Split
USAF 370,882 181,223 67/33
Army 480,000 565,000 46/54
Navy 372,696 90,843 80/20
USMC 172,200 40,018 81/19
Total 1,395,778 877,084 61/39

Fiscal 1999 Force Structure (Proposed)

Service Combat Element

Active Duty Guard/Reserve

USAF fighter wings

12.6 7.6

USAF air defense squadrons

0.0 6.0

Army divisions

10.0 8.0

Army separate brigades

0.0 15.0

Navy carriers

11.0 1.0

Navy carrier air wings

10.0 1.0

USMC divisions

3.0 1.0

USMC air wings

3.0 1.0

The tables on this page suggest important differences between services on National Guard and Reserve policies. The two maritime services–the Navy and Marine Corps–maintain only small reserve components, which account for only about one-fifth of the strength of their total forces. In the Air Force and Army, the ratio is much higher. Only the Air Force, however, operates all of its backup forces as part of a totally integrated whole.

James Kitfield is the defense correspondent for National Journal in Washington. His most recent article for Air Force Magazine, “The Space and Air Force,” appeared in the February 1998 issue.