WASHINGTON—The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have left the National Guard dangerously short of aircraft, trucks, radios and other gear, seriously hampering the ability of citizen soldiers to respond to natural disasters and other emergencies at home, the Guard's top officer warned Wednesday.
Almost 9 out of every 10 Army National Guard units that aren't serving in Iraq and Afghanistan have less than half the equipment they need to respond to a domestic crisis, Lt. Gen. H. Steven Blum, the chief of the National Guard Bureau, said during testimony to the Commission on the National Guard and Reserves.
"The units that are overseas are magnificently equipped," said Blum, whose job is to coordinate National Guard activities between the states and the Pentagon. "However, having said that, 88 percent of the forces that are back here in the United States are very poorly equipped in the Army National Guard."
Worse still, less than 45 percent of the Air National Guard's units have the equipment they need to deploy, the first time such a shortfall in equipment readiness has occurred in the past 35 years, Blum said.
Congress set up the Commission on the National Guard and Reserves two years ago to consider changing how the country's reserve military forces are trained, equipped and deployed.
Blum's testimony underscored how badly the wars are grinding down the military's equipment stocks and how they could impair the National Guard's ability to respond to natural disasters or possible terrorist attacks at home.
Guard units have had to leave not only their tanks and other combat vehicles behind in Iraq but also the large cargo trucks, Humvees, bulldozers, radios and other gear essential to disaster response.
Blum estimated that it would take about $40 billion for the Army National Guard alone to make up for its equipment losses.
Army Secretary Francis J. Harvey told the panel that the Army has set aside $21 billion for the National Guard to buy new vehicles and other ground gear and another $1.9 billion to replace lost aircraft and parts during the next four years.
The Army already has sent more than 11,000 pieces of crucial gear to hurricane-prone states, Harvey said.
He said the Army had set aside another $3.9 billion to purchase new equipment for the Army Reserve.
Wednesday's hearing concerned a proposal by Sens. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and Christopher Bond, R-Mo., to elevate the chief of the National Guard Bureau to four-star rank, give the position a seat on the Joint Chiefs of Staff and provide the National Guard with a separate equipment budget.
The National Guard now is funded through the Department of the Army and the Department of the Air Force. Governors usually control the forces in their states, but the federal government can mobilize them for large domestic crises or overseas duty.
Leahy and Bond say their measure will give the National Guard more muscle within the Pentagon and will strengthen its ability to respond to emergencies at home and abroad.
The two senators introduced the bill last year, but it failed to pass after the Bush administration lobbied against it.
Harvey repeated that opposition Wednesday, saying that change was unnecessary.
"It would confuse command and control relationships and lines of authority that the department has formed over the past 20 years," Harvey said.
Blum said, however, that the legislation would strengthen not only the National Guard but also the Army and the Air Force.
The National Governors Association has endorsed the measure, saying it would ensure that the National Guard stays prepared to fulfill its state and federal missions.
The Commission on the National Guard and Reserves is to deliver a report by March 1 advising whether Congress should pass or table the bill.
About 430,000 Army National Guard and Army Reserve soldiers have deployed since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, at times making up nearly half the U.S. ground forces fighting overseas.
(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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