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Opinion: Columnists

There's a place for the National Guard even in a tight budget, and Congress needs to find it

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Opinion,James Jay Carafano,Columnists,Army,Defense Spending,National Guard

It was a “hard luck” division, gathering nothing but casualties and setbacks since it landed in Normandy. Its general led from behind — well behind — ensconced in a well-appointed bunker.

That all changed when Raymond S. McLain took over the 90th Infantry Division. Leading from the front, he turned those troops into a crack fighting force that swept across France.

McLain is remembered as one of the best American “fighting” generals of *World War II. More than an extraordinary soldier, he was an extraordinary “citizen solder.”

After graduating college, McLain joined the National Guard in 1913. He saw active duty in the Mexican Expedition and World War I as well as World War II. During the years between wars, he balanced a successful business career with his Guard duties.

McLain’s distinguished service was exceptional indeed. But for well over a century, the men and women of the National Guard have provided invaluable service to their nation in peace and war.

Today, that tradition continues. Since 9/11, according to Gen. Frank J. Grass, chief of the National Guard Bureau, there have been over 760,000 individual deployments of Air Force and Army Guard personnel. The Guard has also responded to crises at home, dealing with everything from Hurricane Katrina to the recent wildfires out West.

Unfortunately, the National Guard, like the rest of our military, has suffered from Washington’s determination to cut forces regardless of our nation’s strategic needs and the rapidly spreading world disorder. As the bipartisan National Defense Panel recently documented, imprudent downsizing of our military capabilities has put our armed forces on a path that will leave them incapable of protecting vital American interests.

An ongoing internecine dispute among Army staff over restructuring aviation assets is just a symptom of the problem. The best-case scenario is an aircraft swap between active and Guard units would give each a more appropriate mix of helicopter platforms, albeit with reduced forces. Unfortunately, staff are balking — and barking at each other. Worse, some are trying to protect their turf by running to friendly lawmakers for legislative “relief.”

To be fair to Congress, it’s little wonder members are flummoxed trying to figure who speaks in the best interest of the National Guard and safeguarding their important contribution to national defense. The Army staff has it ideas. The National Guard Bureau thinks it knows best. Every adjutant general who commands the Guard forces in his state or territory wants a say, as do the governors of the state who “own” their Guard forces (unless they are mobilized for federal service).

These complicated command relationships might seem a bit Rube Goldberg, but they actually reflect one of the great strengths of the Guard—the flexible manner by which it can be organized, trained and deployed for vital national missions at home and abroad.

The system works well enough when the armed forces are adequately maintained. But that’s not the case now. Instead we have acrimonious competition for increasingly scant resources, with all commanders concerned that their forces are getting short-changed.

The squabbling has to stop. The Army has to figure out how it’s going preserve readiness and essential capabilities until Washington comes to its senses and becomes a responsible steward of the common defense.

Maintaining a trained, ready, and capable Guard is crucial to keeping the Army from falling apart. That will take a coalition of leaders within the Army who are willing to work together to tackle tough issues.

It should start with an equitable solution that keeps the Army's aviation restructuring initiative moving forward. And that solution needs to be hammered out before Congress comes back to Washington.

JAMES JAY CARAFANO, a Washington Examiner columnist, is vice president for defense and foreign policy studies at the Heritage Foundation.
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James Jay Carafano

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The Washington Examiner

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