WASHINGTON, May 4, 2010 — The National Guard is transforming itself to meet the threats of the 21st century, but the transition is hard and will be painful for units, the chief of the National Guard Bureau said here today.
Air Force Gen. Craig R. McKinley spoke during a breakfast meeting of the Defense Writers Group.
“We are in transition to a new type of force to be more relevant in today’s wars,” McKinley said.
Balance is the operative word in the Defense Department this year, the general said.
“How do we make a balanced force – both Army and Air Guard – that allows us to do the services’ requirements, but still gives the governors flexibility and capability at home?” McKinley asked. “The National Guard is adapting to the changing styles of warfare. I couldn’t have predicted 15 years ago that we would have used more that 80 percent of our Army Guard in full rotation fighting over a period of almost nine years. But we were able to adapt.”
In the mid-1990s, McKinley said, it was difficult to train up Guard formations for operations in the Balkans. “Now, we can take of formation of 2,000 people and within 90 days have them ready to deploy to Afghanistan,” he said. “I don’t think we could have done that 15 years ago.”
Times have changed, the general said, and so has the National Guard. “We have to be a more agile and quick response force,” he said. “The old rules of the 20th century are just not relevant.”
The transition will be especially painful in the Air National Guard, where new missions, new equipment and new threats drive the process, the general said. The Air Guard still operates at bases they started using at the end of World War II, he explained, and many units are fighter units flying aircraft that are ending their operational lives. Now, he said, the country needs units that can operate unmanned aerial vehicles and manage intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance assets, McKinley said. Other personnel will be needed in command and control and intelligence functions.
“We are transitioning to a new place,” he said. “But it’s going to be painful for many of our units.”
The Army National Guard went through a modernization effort after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. The Army equipped Guard units with the latest equipment and integrated them into the larger force.
“It’s produced a force that is on average between 50,000 and 60,000 soldiers fighting … in Iraq and Afghanistan,” McKinley said. “With an overall force of 358,000, we believe we can sustain this indefinitely.”
Army Guard troops are in a 1-to-3 ratio of years deployed to years at home, the general said, and he would like to see that ratio at 1-to-5. “The Army Guard worked as it was supposed to,” he said. “[The United States was] confronted with two land wars and used the Army National Guard as a shock absorber, because the U.S. Army wasn’t big enough. And it still may not be big enough.”
Even with the high deployment rate, National Guard recruiting and retention numbers “defy all logic,” McKinley said.
“They are the highest they’ve ever been,” he said. “Our retention in the Army Guard approaches 100 percent. We’ve had to shut down recruiting, because we have already met our goals, and I believe it is sustainable.”
The Guard is a joint force, especially in the United States, McKinley said.
“The fact that we have an Army Guard and an Air Guard sometimes is irrelevant when you’re fighting a flood or doing things in the Gulf of Mexico,” he said. Governors use the highly trained and highly skilled Guardsmen as needed, he added.
“There are 66,000 Guardsmen working around the world in various capacities – mostly Army Guardsmen in Iraq and Afghanistan, but also a large number of Air Guardsmen,” McKinley said. “We are proud of what we are, and proud of what we’ve become. We’ve transformed ourselves.”
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