WASHINGTON—Members of the House Armed Services Committee expressed concerns Wednesday about downsizing the National Guard, and some suggested that they might propose adding money to President Bush's $439 billion 2007 defense budget request.
The issue comes as the Army is stretched thin by nearly three years of war in Iraq, and some lawmakers and defense experts worry that continued strain may cause long-term damage, especially if seasoned officers and sergeants begin to leave in large numbers, as happened after the Vietnam War.
Many lawmakers and the nation's governors oppose what they see as a Pentagon plan to trim 17,000 soldiers from the National Guard and 16,000 from the Army Reserve.
Pentagon and Army plans call for providing funds only for the current number of part-time soldiers in the National Guard and the Army Reserve, instead of for the number that Congress has authorized.
Army officials say they'll shift money from other accounts if the National Guard and Reserve recruit enough soldiers to fill their authorized ranks.
"We are not cutting the Guard," Gen. Peter J. Schoomaker, the Army's chief of staff, said Wednesday. "(But) there is no sense in us putting in money where there isn't anybody. We have other priorities."
The Army has requested funds to cover only its current strength of 333,000 troops for the National Guard and 189,000 for the Army Reserve. Congress has authorized 350,000 troops for the National Guard and 205,000 for the Army Reserve.
Rep. Ike Skelton of Missouri, the committee's ranking Democrat, expressed concern about the Air Force's plan to cut 40,000 troops and the Navy's plan to trim 12,000 sailors over the coming years. He also said he was concerned about downsizing the National Guard and Army Reserve.
Skelton said the Pentagon and Congress "have to be honest about what it takes" for the armed forces to carry out their current missions.
"This is not an academic exercise," he said. "We must get it right. If we don't we will seriously weaken our national security."
Military officials under Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld consistently have pushed for cuts in active-duty troop strength in order to pay for new weapons and other equipment. Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., the House Armed Services Committee's chairman, said Wednesday that the Pentagon mustn't trade troops for those programs.
"We cannot afford to make any tradeoffs—for example, between end strength and modernization," Hunter said as Rumsfeld and other top military officials appeared for testimony over the state of the military and the fiscal 2007 budget request. "We must commit the resources we need to protect this nation and our people from threats that exist today and will evolve in the future."
Hunter suggested that Congress consider adding more money for defense, especially because of the Iraq war and the war in Afghanistan, where U.S. troops have been fighting Taliban and al-Qaida remnants for more than four years. American defense spending is about 3.9 percent of gross domestic product; Hunter said that was too low.
Skelton also said he had difficulty understanding why the Pentagon would choose to allocate more than $1 billion in 2007 to the ground-based missile defense system that's under construction in Alaska while not funding the National Guard to its full strength.
Bush has made building a system to defend the United States, American forces overseas and allies from a small number of ballistic missile attacks one of his top defense priorities. The program has been hampered by test failures and technical problems.
(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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