National Guard Deployable Strength – A Looming Concern
This coming Memorial Day, America will take some needed time and reflect on the generations of fighting men and women who gave their lives in service to the nation. And not only will Americans remember and understand the sacrifices made by servicemen and women in the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, and Coast Guard, but those who served in the National Guard as well. In fact, the history of the National Guard in war is both significant and deep, and both Army and Air Guard units have played a huge role and paid a heavy price in defense of freedom. Moreover, during periods in American history when the active regular Army was small, state militia units actually supplied the bulk of troops needed for combat deployment; the Mexican–American War, the American Civil War, and the Spanish–American War all saw significant militia and Guard units activated for national service.
But beyond the valor and the can-do spirit of our Guard forces, a key part of the National Guard’s value is its cost benefit to the nation as a combat-capable military force. The simple fact is that as a reserve entity, the Guard allows our nation’s leadership to maintain a ready force of combat capable arms for any scenario, at a fraction of the cost for active duty forces. The key to this is close coordination, training, common equipment, and general alignment with the active Air Force and Army – allowing for smooth deployment transitions, continuity of operations in combat theaters, and interoperability with the joint force.
But here in 2022, there are a number of looming concerns regarding interoperability between the National Guard and the active service components. Moreover, these issues directly concern the ability of the Guard – particularly the Army Guard – to deploy in support of American military operations at a fully mission capable level. Both the DOD, and the Congress should examine the issue closely and address this in short order, particularly moving into the FY23 appropriations cycle and especially as Russia’s war on Ukraine has stimulated a lot of new and urgent thought about what America’s defense might need to look like in coming years.
One of these issues is in the area of aviation – where continued delays in new rotary-wing aircraft could have an impact on Army National Guard mission capability and readiness across the service. The UH-60V program, intended to upgrade legacy Blackhawks with mission equipment more in line with the new UH-60M helicopter, continues to be way behind schedule, which threatens to leave growing numbers of Guard units without rotary-wing utility airlift capability. Additionally, the enduring lack of fully combat deployable attack and reconnaissance aircraft – represented by the AH-64 Apache – continues to be a major gap that limits the ARNG’s ability to fully support of U.S. combat operations.
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And while the National Guard has a medium helicopter in the UH-72 Lakota that is an excellent aircraft for several domestic missions, it is not combat-deployable. If the Army Guard continues to see serious delays in the UH-60V aircraft delivery schedule, or if the Congress and the administration cannot find a way to replenish the Guard’s AH-64 squadrons, there could be serious readiness ramifications for the Guard in the near term. With renewed concerns about security in Europe, repositioning and deployment of Army units on the continent, and the National Guard actually deploying to help train Ukrainian forces, we need to prioritize readiness across the Total Army.
Certainly, the Congress and the Administration have to tackle a wide span of serious issues across DOD that will require tough decisions and creative approaches over the next several fiscal years – in everything from modernizing the nuclear triad, to developing hypersonic weapons, to rebuilding the US Navy fleet. And funding, of course, is finite.
It is along these delicate balance lines between budget reality and military necessity where the National Guard can provide a cost-effective solution to maintain readiness and combat capability without having to spend the inordinate support dollars that active components require. And, it may be surprising how little is actually saved by not fully equipping the Army Guard – put another way, combat capability sacrificed for short-term savings will cost America’s military in the long run. The ‘pay me now pay me later’ paradigm – where later always costs more – also risks readiness at a time where current near-peer adversaries threaten the balance of power and the stability of the world. It is for these reasons that the Army Guard should be capitalized and supported across all combat arms and disciplines to ensure that it remains a full-strength ready-reserve force that can be quickly called upon to support U.S. operations if needed.
With the ongoing conflict in Ukraine reshaping concerns about the readiness of our forces, and raising key questions about how we best prepare for defense in the coming years, re-examining the advantages and value of our Guard and reserve forces as a cost-effective combat force-multiplier is needed. If we are going to get radical and think outside the box in order to best prepare our forces for the future – much like the Marine Corps is doing now, albeit not without resistance – then re-equipping the National Guard with what it needs to meet its authorized strength should be a basic first step.
Memorial Day gives us a moment to reflect on the price paid by our fellow citizens in wars past. It also presents us with an appropriate moment with which to think about how we best protect the nation in the future. The versatility of National Guard allows it to perform an impressive array of important functions domestically and to help secure victories in the course of combat operations overseas. This cost-effective reach-back capability gives military planners and decision-makers more flexibility in everything from long-term budgeting, to logistics and acquisition, to readiness and training, to recruiting and retention, to ultimately preparing for, and conducting, combat operations. And with that in mind, moving towards FY23, Congress and the Administration need to bear down on the issue of key aviation platforms in the National Guard – because the absence of these aircraft could significantly challenge the Total Army readiness and the Army Guard’s deployable strength.
Miguel Alejandro Laborde is a former NCO in the 160th SOAR (A), and a subject matter expert on defense aviation programs, capabilities and platforms, with decades’ worth of experience in the aerospace industry supporting the joint force.