The Army vs. the National Guard

The battle of the boots?

The United States Army doesn’t like the Army National Guard very much. They never have. Some of the tension is cultural: the professional’s instinctive disdain for the “weekend warrior.”
Another part is political, the problem of dual chains of command. Except when federalized, the Guard works for state governors. The Army supervises, but lacks the total control it exercises over its own reserves, and often resents the political clout of ever-protective governors and Congressfolk.

But the real problem is money. The Guard consumes resources that the Army would rather spend on itself. Inside The Building (aka the Pentagon, the country’s largest still-standing chunk of temporary World War II office space) and Inside The Beltway (another piece of sadly deteriorating federal construction) military money tends to get allocated on the basis of roles, missions, and functions: Who does what. Nobody wins a larger appropriation, or that next promotion, by admitting that somebody else can handle the job as well, or better.

In 1997, the traditional Army/Guard contretemps approached the intensity and viciousness of civil war . . . a valid allusion to fratricide, given that the vast majority of the Army Guard’s senior leadership also served in the active Army, in Vietnam and elsewhere. Even by DC standards ? “They try to be Machiavellian, but their knives keep falling out of their pockets” ? it was ugly.

The dropping and stabbing focused on money, of course, but also on the justifying issue of roles and missions. Last May, the Pentagon’s Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) recommended substantial cuts and reorienting the Guard from combat to support functions. The QDR was not empowered to consider the Guard’s domestic utility.

The Guard leadership, feeling that it hadn’t been given an adequate chance to make its case, and that the Army was

trying to decimate it, mounted a highly-effective political counteroffensive, which resulted in an Army/Guard “off-site” meeting that produced an agreement whose meaning nobody can agree on.

The National Defense Panel (NDP), a group chartered by Congress to provide alternatives to the QDR, which was supposed to provide alternatives to (I am not making this up) the BUR, the CORM, the BFS, and a modest tonnage of lesser studies, noted in its December report: “While the other services have successfully integrated their active and reserve forces, the Army has suffered from a destructive disunity.” The NDP urged greater use of the Guard across the spectrum of foreign contingencies, and added a domestic chore: preparing to “support consequence management activities,” i.e., what happens after some terrorist gizmo goes mushroom or starts sneezing germs or chemicals. The idea has also been vetted by Defense Secretary William Cohen, and fits well with the Guard’s traditional disaster relief mission.

Will these and other proposals to enhance the National Guard become reality? Probably not, if the Army has its way. After all, as they say at the Seat of Government, “Where you sit determines where you stand.”

But is the Army’s resistance utterly without merit? Does a large standing citizen militia make sense in the 21st century, as Industrial Age warfare, with its divisions piled on corps, yields to high-tech, precision-guidance infowar and cybercombat . . . and/or to the primitive yet deadly depredations of tribes and faiths and gangs and miscellaneous crazies. Is the Guard even relevant, let alone capable of handling these missions?

Clearly, there is no inherent reason why they can’t do the job(s). The Marines and the Air Force have demonstrated how much can be accomplished with reservists, given positive attitude and sufficient resources. But does the militia so beloved of the Founding Fathers really make sense anymore?

The answer is: as much as ever, and in exactly the way the Founders intended.

The Constitution and subsequent legislation created a military establishment that was limited but effective, carefully controlled but also remarkably flexible. The critical element of this system was the large citizen militia, held by the states yet available to the federal government under appropriate circumstances. The Founders desired this arrangement both because they feared a professional military and because, as Alexander Hamilton wrote in The Federalist #23: “. . . it is impossible to foresee or to define the extent and variety of national exigencies, and the corresponding extent and variety of the means which may be necessary to satisfy them.”

Prophetic words. We’ve certainly got some new national exigencies to play with. And the Guard is relevant again in two ways. One pertains to domestic security, and is obvious. The other involves a technical dispute of almost theological intensity over how we choose to fight future major wars, and is barely known outside the military arena. The dispute centers on the roles of land and air power.

And ironically, the more important air power becomes, the greater the usefulness of the Army National Guard.

The first area is that ever-expanding twilight zone between traditional law enforcement and “traditional” war: counterterrorism, border security, drug interdiction, and protection of critical civilian infrastructure, including cybersystems. The NDP, alone among this decade’s major official studies, deemed this array of activities a critical priority and gave it its proper name ? homeland defense. The NDP also recognized the Guard as a vital instrument. Both common and political sense support the position.

The Guard is already on-site in every state and significant territory. They know the real estate and the people. Their existing relationships with local law enforcement agencies are far preferable to having the Army and Marines (and both are already doing this) tromping about on a regular basis. The Guard already has extensive experience in the relevant missions. And ? a point too often overlooked ? the federales come and go. Guardsmen and women have strong personal motivations to carry out their local missions successfully.

And, unlike federal troops, they have to live among their neighbors after the emergency passes.

The second relevance is, for the moment, a bit more theoretical. It also depends upon a complex set of decisions that the civilian leadership and the JCS have studiously avoided making about the land power/air power relationship. But the conceptual conflict is relatively simple.

The Army and Marines love to remind us that human beings live on land, not water or air. From this unassailable premise they derive a somewhat less non-rebuttable corollary. The land campaign determines victory, and the land campaign requires “boots on the ground.” Lots of boots.

The Air Force and other air power advocates counter: Not always. Victory is determined by situations and objectives, and may come in many forms. And getting the maximum number of young men and women within range of enemy fire as quickly as possible may not be the best way to take ? or take back ? terrain.

The “take back” is critical here. Americans being creatures who like to feel both aggrieved and infuriated before major thumpfests, we tend to let the other guys hit first. Sometimes, we even nudge them to do so. Pearl Harbor comes to mind. So does Korea, the Tonkin Gulf, Kuwait. Forty years of NATO planning presumed a Soviet invasion.

The pattern hardly changes. Absorb a first strike, halt the bad guys, build up forces in-theater, then counterattack. By the conventional wisdom, taking turf is the climax, indeed, the only appropriate outcome.

Perhaps, in some cases. However, air power advocates now suggest that, at least in the areas most likely to host “conventional” war (Korea and the Middle East), the critical phase should be the “halt,” not the “counter.” Seoul lies within range of North Korean artillery; too many Persian Gulf oil fields dot the coasts. So the “halt” must be done primarily by rapidly deploying air power, not by ground forces that may not even be able to get there. And once the bad guys are stopped, they’ve lost. And the build-up and counter-offensive become less time-critical . . . which means, among other things, that there will be more time to “train-up” and deploy Guard and reserve units.

To translate from theory to money: If you accept the criticality of the “halt,” you buy air power, lots of gee-whiz munitions, and strong reserve ground forces, i.e., the Guard. If you favor the criticality of the final assault, you buy less air power and more active-duty ground formations, and spend more (much more) on keeping them good-to-go.

Nobody is arguing that air power can do it all. Nor is anybody saying that the country doesn’t need strong, mobile, rapid deployment ground forces: the Marines, the Army’s airborne, air mobile, and light infantry formations, perhaps even a modest heavy “force package.” And the Army’s favorite response to air power advocates ? “What happens if it doesn’t work?” ? certainly remains valid.

But clearly, the Army now finds itself between the Scylla of rocks and the Charybdis of hard places. As the country’s homeland defense needs increase, so should the vitality of the Guard . . . a vitality that will have expeditionary as well as domestic uses. And, as air power increases its lethality, the need for “boots on the ground” tends to diminish.

Not disappear. But the question of “how many boots” becomes the matter of “whose boots” as well.

Philip Gold

Dr. Philip Gold is a senior fellow of the Discovery Institute, and director of the Institute's Aerospace 2010 Project. A former Marine, he is the author of Evasion,: The American Way of Military Service and over 100 articles on defense matters. He teaches at Georgetown University and is a frequent op-ed contributor to several newspapers. Dr. Gold divides his time between Seattle and Washington, D.C.