WASHINGTON — U.S. Rep. Tim Walz remembers the 1980s, when the National Guard was made up of “weekend warriors” training just a couple days a month, and when they were equipped accordingly.
“The National Guard got all the hand-me-downs, they were a second thought, and quite honestly they were an operational reserve force,” said Walz, a retired National Guard Command Sergeant Major. “If everything went to heck, the National Guard would be there as a last resort.”
That’s not the case today, after nearly 14 years of war in the Middle East in which reservists like the Guard fought side by side with the active component of the Army.
Which is what makes an ongoing spat between the Guard and the Army so, as Walz put it, “uncomfortable.”
The Army’s active duty component and the National Guard are arguing over troop levels and who get to use which helicopters, a conflict that could have an impact on Minnesota National Guard staffing and operations. It’s one of the simmering disputes set off by larger questions of how to fund the armed services in an era of smaller conflicts abroad and budget caps at home.
There are two underlying issues causing this fight. The first is the basic question of how the American military should be organized and staffed as wars wind down. During relative peacetime, the force can be smaller, leaner and less expensive, and after the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, that’s the direction we’re headed in now.
But the second issue is newer, imposed by modern congressional fights over the deficit. Sequestration, across-the-board spending caps that took effect in 2013, limits how much Congress can spend on defense programs (as well as domestic programs). Both the Army and the National Guard have blamed sequestration as a root cause for their dust-up. As lawmakers took the dive into budget season this week, it serves as a reminder of what their blunt budget cap has done for a branch of federal spending both side say they support.
“[Sequestration] is the pebble in the pond and what you’re seeing the ripples, and some decisions that are causing other ripples,” said National Guard Association of the United States spokesman John Goheen.
A battle over helicopters
In 2013, the Army announced a plan it said would help freshen up the active-duty helicopter fleet while sticking to the budget targets under sequestration.
The “Aviation Restructuring Initiative” would cut to the number of aviation combat units in the post-war years and retire the Army’s fleet of aging Kiowa helicopters, replacing them with Apaches, combat helicopters also used by the National Guard. The Army would take these helicopters from the Guard and replace them with a different, older helicopter. The move could cut troop levels and costs — by reducing the number of aviation units — while also improving the modernity of the active fleet, two stated goals for the Army.
But the National Guard hit back, warning that taking away a combat helicopter hurts its ability to match the active fleet’s combat skills. The Guard and its advocates argue that, as a part-time fleet, it is, by its nature, cheaper to maintain than its active-duty counterpart, and that cutting its numbers and taking its equipment in the face of a tight budget ignored those facts (The Army says the plan will save $12 billion, and Defense Department studies reportedly show it would cost less than a Guard-proposed alternative).
“We get it, that the nation needs full time Army troops for rapid responses for future contingencies,” said Col. Kevin Olson, a Minnesota National Guard spokesman. “In the meantime, while war is winding down, it’s so much more cost effective to keep part-time Guard members to be utilized as needed.”
The Minnesota National Guard doesn’t have any of the Apache helicopters, but it might have to transfer some of its existing helicopters to other states that lose theirs. Olson said that could mean less equipment and reduced readiness for the Guard to conduct domestic missions, such as search and rescue or fire suppression.
Cutting combat units could mean Minnesota would lose some of its 13,000 service members, though Guard officials said they don’t have an estimated number. But they say moving Apaches from the Guard to the active force could hurt training efforts for troops it routinely deploys. Members of the St. Paul-based 34th Combat Aviation Brigade are currently stationed in Kuwait helping command attack helicopter missions in the Middle East, for example.
Congressional commission steps in
In response to the spat, Congress approved the “Commission on the Future of the Army” last year, meant to study how to staff and finance the Army in the post-war years and make recommendations to Congress. The National Guard is banking on the commission listening to — and relieving — their worries about the potential for losing its helicopters, and Walz said the panel will give more insight on what the next steps should be overall.
Congress caused this fight in the first place by allowing sequestration to take effect two years ago, a fact not lost on lawmakers themselves.
Legislators grudgingly signed off on sequestration in 2011, hoping the threat of blind, across-the-board caps on both domestic and defense spending would push them toward a broader deficit reduction package. They failed, and the caps became law in 2013.
Today, sequestration is a common source of angst on Capitol Hill, on both sides of the aisle. Simply put, no one likes sequestration and would rather do away with it — if only there were consensus on what to do in its place.
The irrationality of sequestration
President Obama has proposed lifting sequestration on both domestic and defense programs and raising taxes to pay for new spending, including at the Defense Department. The GOP-controlled House passed a plan this week that would fund the department at the sequestration level but backfill it with $96 billion in wartime funding not subject to the cap. Fiscal hawks tussled with defense supporters over a portion of that fund and the fact that its spending isn’t offset elsewhere, but the House eventually passed the budget as written.
“We have our sons and daughters in Iraq, in Afghanistan, in northern Africa, we need to make sure that they are as well-trained and equipped as we can make them,” said Minnesota Republican Rep. John Kline, who supported the bill. “In the base, the sequestration budget, there’s not enough money to do it. That’s how we got to the solution which actually finally passed.”
As budget season heats up (this week’s vote was only an early step in that process), Minnesota’s two members on the House Armed Services Committee, Kline and Walz, both agree that the government should spend more on its military than sequestration mandates. The problem, as always, is how to get there.
Walz said Congress should “have the courage” to simply remove the caps and hold a debate on where to find savings elsewhere in the budget.
“Why would you cut 5 percent from a program that should be zeroed out and why would you cut 5 percent from a program that’s absolutely needed?” he said. “I think we’ve got to go back and do it, we’ve got to have the courage to get out of this thing.”
Kline, though, said the votes likely aren’t there to lift the caps. He said Congress should look toward the biggest chunk of the federal budget — entitlement spending — for savings. Entitlement reform is a long-shot goal for any Congress, but Kline is heartened by the fact the House passed a bipartisan bill fixing a Medicare funding problem just this week.
“We need that kind of thinking now to look at, how do you get rid of sequestration?” he said.
As for the National Guard-Army spat, both Kline and Walz said they want to make sure the Guard is properly equipped going forward. But they acknowledged there would be tension between active and reservist units so long as sequestration is on the books.
“At the end of this, my guess is that the Guard doesn’t get everything they want, and what we’re hearing form the [U.S. Army] Chief of Staff, he’s probably not going to get everything he wants,” Kline said. “You’ve got to balance here.”
Devin Henry can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @dhenry