WASHINGTON—Stretched thin by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the National Guard is less prepared now than it's ever been to respond to a major terrorist attack, a natural disaster or another domestic crisis, a congressionally appointed panel has found.
Because of the wars, the Commission on the National Guard and Reserves found, 88 percent of Army National Guard units and 45 percent of Air National Guard units that aren't deployed overseas have severe equipment shortages. That's reduced the Guard to its lowest readiness level ever and posed an unacceptable risk to Americans, said Arnold J. Punaro, the commission chairman and a retired Marine Corps major general.
In a report issued Thursday to Congress, the commission also faulted the Department of Homeland Security for failing to identify the domestic missions the National Guard should be expected to perform and criticized the Defense Department for not equipping the National Guard adequately for those missions.
Punaro said the Defense Department had told at least one governor, whom he didn't identify, that it could take as long as four years to replace equipment his state's National Guard units had left in Iraq.
"If major changes are not made, the Guard and Reserve, the capability to carry out their missions, will continue to deteriorate," Punaro told reporters. "And it will go down, down, down. They will be less and less ready, and we will be taking more and more risks."
The commission's 151-page report recommends 23 major changes to repair the problems. These include identifying the missions the National Guard is expected to perform at home, ensuring that the Guard gets the equipment it needs to carry out those missions, and establishing a bipartisan council of governors that would meet semi-annually and see that shortcomings are addressed.
The commission also recommended rewriting the charter for the National Guard Bureau, which co-ordinates the Guard's state and federal assignments. The proposed revisions also would give the bureau a stronger role in defense and emergency planning, enhance the rank of the bureau's chief to four-star general, and give the position a stronger advisory role with the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
The commission urged a stronger National Guard role at the U.S. Northern Command, which has responsibility for defending the continental United States. It also said that the Northern Command should develop disaster response plans that account for state-level activities and include the use of National Guard and Reserve forces as first responders.
In a controversial move, the commission proposed that governors be given command over federal troops that respond to emergencies in their states.
Many of the recommendations, especially those urging greater federal and state cooperation, were aimed at avoiding the confusion that reigned after Hurricane Katrina slammed into the Gulf Coast in 2005.
The commission opposed giving the National Guard chief a seat on the Joint Chiefs of Staff, which some lawmakers have said is necessary to ensure that the Guard gets the resources it needs. The commission said that doing so would essentially make the National Guard a separate service and harm cooperation with the active-duty military.
Lawmakers who want a stronger role for the Guard, while generally welcoming the report's findings, called some of its recommendations "tepid" and said they'd press ahead with legislation to give the National Guard a seat on the Joint Chiefs.
"The Guard deserves a place at the table when decisions at the Guard are made that affect its readiness, its missions and effectiveness," said Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., in a statement.
The commission was created two years ago to find solutions to long-standing problems with how the National Guard and Reserves are equipped and how they are used both at home and abroad. A comprehensive report on their findings and recommendations is due in January 2008.
The Commission report is available at: http://www.cngr.gov/press-room.asp
(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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