Issue Date: September 13, 2004
Guard gears up for busy future
Chief discusses forces’ new role, benefits and terrorist threat
By Jane McHugh
Times staff writer
The National Guard has stepped up its homeland defense training and exercises because of a pre-election spike in terrorist threats on U.S. soil, its chief said.
The enhanced security drills, called Vigilant Guard, started Aug. 1 and will likely last through the inauguration; they will be conducted in every state and territory, Lt. Gen. Steven Blum, chief of the National Guard Bureau, said at an Aug. 31 meeting with Army Times reporters and editors.
Blum mentioned “radiological contamination” from transnational terrorists as a possible threat but noted that the National Guard has 32 Civil Support Teams, mobile units equipped to detect and analyze chemical, biological, nuclear and explosive materials, to bolster similar civilian teams.
During the 90-minute meeting, Blum touched on a range of issues of key interest to National Guard soldiers including operations tempo, personnel shortages, bonuses and recruiting challenges.
Blum is manning the bureau at a juncture in history in which America’s oldest military force, which dates back to pre-Revolutionary days, is burdened with unprecedented demands.
Since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the role of the National Guard, composed of 450,000 reserve soldiers and airmen, has been dramatically transformed from an organization on call for aid in natural disasters and some deployments to a major fighting force in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as prime homeland security defender. The Guard will be the nation’s chief military defender in case of an attack by enemy forces from within or without.
“We are in the best position to defeat, defer, deter and delay an attack on the United States of America,” Blum said.
the next several months could be dangerous, he said.
“We’re seeing a lot of threat stream reporting … not dissimilar” to threats that were heard before Sept. 11, he said.
He cited the suspected terrorist attacks that recently may have brought down two Russian passenger planes as a reason for extra vigilance. The Bush administration has issued warnings that al-Qaida has threatened to strike the continental United States to disrupt the presidential election.
However, these developments don’t detract from the Guard’s operational missions in Iraq and Afghanistan, Blum said.
“Right now, while we’re sitting here, you have roughly 100,000 Army and Air National Guard citizen soldiers and airmen deployed all over the world, roughly 40,000 in Iraq and a little less than 4,000 in Afghanistan, with numbers equal to or greater than that yet to come for the next rotation,” Blum said. “So the contribution that the Guard is making in the overseas war fight is quite substantial.”
Blum discussed a range of other topics during his 90-minute interview:
Retention and recruiting
The Air National Guard will exceed its authorized 2004 end strength of 107,000 by several hundred, Blum said. Re-enlistment was higher than anticipated, he noted, but another factor was the Air Guard’s push to trim its force structure.
The Army National Guard, with an end-strength goal of 350,000 troops, will come in about 6,000 under strength for the current fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30.
One key to that shortfall, he said, was that fewer active-duty troops are going into the reserves after separating, largely because many don’t want to join if there’s a good chance they will be deployed again.
“If you’re coming off active duty and you’re likely to get into an organization that may put you right back on active duty in a forward-deployed area of the world, you either tend to stay on active duty or you tend to come off of active duty and not join any of the reserve components … right now,” Blum said. “And that’s what we’re starting to see, is that dynamic” accounting for the shortfall.
Also, stop-loss policies have kept thousands of soldiers involuntarily in uniform on active duty beyond their separation and retirement dates. As a result, the Guard is increasingly relying on bringing in young people with no prior military experience, he said. That “puts us in direct competition with the active Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps, because we’re all going after the same college or high school graduate talent pool of young men and women. And that’s a very competitive market, as you know.”
Another market worth tapping, Blum said, is the “blue to green” — Navy and Air Force people coming into the Army; the Navy and Air Force are both facing downsizing.
“It won’t just automatically happen,” he said. “We’re going to have to actively recruit and go after that market. We’re going to have to head-hunt that target population to make it work.”
Incentives for Guard members
Blum said he was optimistic that Congress would soon remove caps on re-enlistment bonuses for reservists.
Unlike the Regular Army and Air Force, bonuses for reservists have to be approved through legislative rather than departmental channels.
“Now that [National Guardsmen] are no longer being viewed and resourced as a strategic reserve, now that we’re an operational force, we need to have some of those restrictions lifted so that we can compete in a more competitive arena with those … that we have to compete with, the active Army and the active services.
“There’s got to be some equity in the bonuses, particularly if they’re going to have the same kind of service overseas,” he said. “In other words, two soldiers overseas, there should not be any disparity between the benefits and pay and bonuses that are available to those two soldiers that may be literally sharing a foxhole. One shouldn’t be encumbered or inhibited in any way by legislation that was really not intended for the kind of force that we’re using today.”
Blum added that he hopes to see the GI Bill adjusted to benefit the reserves to a greater degree in 2005.