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Wars leave National Guard short on critical equipment

WASHINGTON—The Army National Guard has lost so much critical equipment in Iraq and Afghanistan that its ability to respond to a national emergency could be severely hampered, says a government report released Thursday.

Lt. Gen. H. Steven Blum, chief of the National Guard Bureau, told the House Government Reform Committee that the Guard needs $1.3 billion to replace or upgrade radios, helicopters, tactical vehicles, heavy engineering equipment, chemical detection gear and night-vision goggles, which are essential to responding to national emergencies such as the recent Gulf Coast hurricanes and terrorist attacks.

Blum's testimony, along with that of other top National Guard and military officials and the governors of Idaho and Pennsylvania, coincided with the release of a new Government Accountability Office report, which says the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have left many Army National Guard units dangerously short of critical equipment. The shortages threaten the National Guard's ability to prepare its forces for future missions at home and overseas, the auditors found.

"The bottom line is that our inventory is now at 34 percent" of what it should be, Blum said.

"National Guard officials believe that the National Guard's response to Hurricane Katrina was more complicated because significant quantities of critical equipment, such as satellite communications equipment, radios, trucks, helicopters and night-vision goggles were deployed to Iraq," said U.S. Comptroller General David M. Walker in a statement accompanying the report's release.

The report found several reasons for the problem:

_The National Guard is experiencing its biggest use of forces since World War II. More than 30 percent of Army troops in Iraq are National Guard soldiers.

_The Army traditionally has equipped National Guard units with only 70 percent of the combat equipment they need, under the assumption that if sent overseas, they would have time to obtain the rest before deployment.

_Current operations, especially in Iraq, have created an unprecedented demand for certain items, such as armored vehicles.

By July 2005, the Army National Guard had transferred more than 101,000 pieces of equipment from stateside units to equip those bound for overseas. More than 64,000 items, worth $1.2 billion, have been left overseas for other units, the auditors found. Further, the practice has "exhausted" the National Guard's inventory of more than 220 high-demand items, such as radios, night-vision goggles and trucks, the report said.

Overall, the National Guard is down to 34 percent of its normal inventory of equipment, and the Army still hasn't developed a plan for replacing lost or missing items, the report said.

As a result, some units have been unprepared to respond to natural disasters when they return home.

Because West Virginia's 1092nd Engineer Battalion left its equipment in Iraq for another unit, its troops found themselves without front-end loaders and dump trucks necessary for flood relief.

The battalion had to rent the equipment it needed, said Maj. Gen. Allen E. Tackett, West Virginia's adjutant general. "I believe this situation must be addressed before the next hurricane, earthquake or tsunami finds us ill-equipped to respond to a threat as potentially deadly as any enemy attack," he said.

Government Reform Committee Chairman Tom Davis, R-Va., said he and Sen. Christopher Bond, R-Mo., are working to ensure that the National Guard gets the $1.3 billion it needs in the next supplemental spending bill.

"Quite simply, we are robbing the nondeployed Peter to pay the deployed Paul," he said. "I understand the need to prioritize, but this shouldn't have to be a zero-sum game."


(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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