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Active vs. Guard: An Avoidable Pentagon War

Posted by Sydney J. Freedberg Jr. on


WASHINGTON: Last year, the US Air Force fell face-first onto a buzzsaw when it proposed dramatic cuts to the Air National Guard, whose supporters raised a storm of protest in the Congress. Now there are signs that the next big budget battle will be between the regular active-duty Army and the Army National Guard.

Or, under the pressure of sequester – a $500 billion cut to defense spending over the next ten years – could there even be a broader conflict that pits all four armed services’s full-time forces against their respective reserve components?

“Yes to both,” said Andrew Davis, a retired Major General in the Marine Corps Reserve and now director of the influential Reserve Officers Association, in a remarkably candid conversation in ROA’s offices across the street from the US Capitol. Indeed, said Davis, “The Army has already had… tension between the three elements of their pyramid[:] the active, Reserve, and Guard.”

“If history is our guide, the Guard wins,” one retired regular active-duty officer wrote me in an email. “Their congressional/political clout (as embodied by NGAUS)” – the National Guard Association of the United States – “rivals that of the NRA and Marine Corps in Washington DC.”

The Guard Association’s deep roots in the nation’s 54 states and territories — and the Pentagon — arguably outgun the Reserve Officers Association, and Davis, at least, is worried about cracks in their united front. (Although both are part of the “reserve component,” Reservists report only to the federal government, while National Guard troops answer to the president and to their state’s or territory’s governor).

“There’s the GAO study in the works on the merger of the Guard and Reserve,” said Davis. (Officially the study only is about efficiencies to be gained from better coordination). Such a merger could save money by consolidating two sets of headquarters, but it would also amount to a de facto takeover of the Reserves by the larger and politically better-connected National Guard.

“Our counterparts across the street, NGAUS, we agree with them on just about everything and are in lockstep when we go up on the Hill, except this,” said Davis. “I think in normal times that that idea would be DOA, but these aren’t normal times.”

It’s essential to emphasize that a three-sided or even two-sided conflict is still not inevitable at this point. But the stakes are very high. Such a conflict would be damaging for all involved and counterproductive for the country. No one I interviewed actually seems to want that war. Instead, everyone is watching the other side warily for budget grabs – and perhaps sometimes seeing malice where there might be none.

“If we’re frustrated by sequestration… don’t blame each other,” said Maj. Gen. Stephen Danner, Missouri’s adjutant general (i.e. the top officer in the state Guard) and chairman of the NGAUS Board.

But, “if for budgetary reasons we need to take down the active force, we can at the same time increase the Guard,” Danner went on. “[That would] maintain our strength, our overall strength in the Army, but save literally billions of dollars.”

A compromise can be found “as long as we keep the lines of communications open and everyone has an open mind,” Danner told me.Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno – himself a regular active-duty officer – met today with a group of National Guard Adjutants-General, just one of what Odierno intends to be a series of series of discussions throughout the year.  Said Danner, “That’s very beneficial.”

Indeed, Odierno has labored mightily to forestall a civil war within his service. So far, in fact, the Army has taken 91 percent of its cuts from the active component: From its wartime peak, the service will shed 80,000 regulars but only 8,000 National Guard troops and no reservists at all.

“We think, based on strategy, that’s appropriate,” Gen. Odierno said when I asked him about that 80:8:0 ratio at a Pentagon press conference Wednesday. After all, it was the regular active-duty Army, not the reserve component, that grew by almost 90,000 soldiers from 9/11 to the height of the Iraq war. With US troops out of Iraq and drawing down in Afghanistan, the Army just won’t need as many full-time troops. But the sequester cuts will force the service to cut still deeper, losing as much as another 100,000 personnel, Odierno has repeatedly said. That cut will have to come out of both components.

“As we move forward, we have to do more of a balance,” Odierno said on Wednesday. “We’ll still reduce quite a bit out of the active, if we have to do more, but there will also be some out of the Guard and Reserve.”

Since there is no sign that sequestration will go away, the Guard and Reserve have good reason to be nervous. They are particularly on edge over comments by some Army leaders about the high cost of getting Guard units ready to deploy and attendant proposals that missions performed for years by the Guard and Reserve should be taken over by regular active-duty units now that the wars are winding down.

“The AC [active component] is starting to poach on missions that have traditionally been Guard and Reserve,” said ROA’s Davis: Bosnia, the Sinai, the State Partnership Program with countries around the world. “The AC covets some of these missions as validation for their end strength.”

NGAUS’s Danner was more sanguine. “In the short run,” he said, “OK, active forces are already there and you’re paying for those.” It takes years to shed manpower without breaking enlistment contracts, and we might as well use active duty units “while we still have them on the books.” In the long run, however, as the regulars draw down, he added, “Guard units would be back in those missions.”

“I’m not too worried about it, quite honestly,” Danner told me. “We’ll weather this storm. [In fact], I just see a lot of opportunity… for the Guard, because we’re the value [proposition] for America.”

Cut the Active, Grow the Guard?

“The tension is all about money,” said Lt. Gen. William Ingram, the Pentagon-based director of the Army National Guard, in a blunt public statement at a Center for Strategic and International Studies forum earlier this month. Ingram made a passionate case that cutting Guard personnel would not save much money – not much, that is, compared to cutting the regular active-duty force, he said when I buttonholed him after his public remarks. “It actually will end up costing as much if not more than you save” if you slash the Guard, he told me – before hastily adding, “We probably need to put that [guesstimate] on a big board and look at it.”

Other Guard officials argue outright that the best way to save money is to grow the Guard at the expense of the regular force. Pennsylvania’s Adjutant-General, Maj. Gen. Wesley Craig, recently wrote an article in the NGAUS magazine arguing that cutting the active component by 100,000 and increasing the reserve component by the same amount would save “$15.7 billion annually with no loss in Total Army end-strength.”

The punditocracy has started to latch onto the idea. “Given the reserves’ performance in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the enormous cost disparity between active and reserve forces, the Army should look for ways to increase its reliance on the reserves,” wrote Phillip Carter and Nora Bensahel of the Center for a New American Security in a recent post for Foreign Policy’s blog.

A recent joint study by CNAS and three other prominent thinktanks on how to implement the sequester largely agreed. Only one of the four teams’ proposals – ironically, the one from Carter and Bensahel’s CNAS colleagues – called for cutting the Army Reserve and Guard more steeply than the regular active-duty Army. Two teams recommended cutting the reserve component somewhat but the active component significantly more. The fourth one recommended slashing the regular Army by 163,000 soldiers and adding 100,000 to the Guard and Reserves.

Army leaders have considered “banking” Iraq and Afghanistan veterans they can’t afford to retain on active duty in the reserve component so as not to lose their expertise, but not on such a scale. In the coming budget battles, however, the lower cost of keeping troops essentially on retainer rather than paying them full-time may prove irresistible to policymakers – as may the National Guard’s powerful political support.

Said NGAUS’s Danner, “if we’re equipped the same, if we’re trained the same, if our capabilities are the same, that’s where it gets down to money.”

The Deployability Debate

While the current conflict between active and reserves is framed in terms of cost effectiveness, effectiveness is much less in debate than cost. That wasn’t always so.

During the last drawdown, in the 1990s, regular Army partisans argued Guard units were so under-trained they couldn’t get up to speed in time for anything but a prolonged conflict. (Their prime example was Guard brigades that missed the 1991 Gulf War because the regular Army kept saying they weren’t ready, which Guard advocates say was deeply unfair). After 12 years of hard fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq, however, where regulars, reservists, and guards fought side by side and were mostly treated as interchangeable, it’s almost impossible to make the effectiveness argument anymore.

Both sides agree that forward-deployed and rapid-reaction forces have to be full-time active-duty troops. “You’re never going to replace a carrier battle group with the Guard and Reserve,” said Arnold Punaro, a famously blunt-spoken retired Marine Reservist who now heads the Pentagon’s Reserve Forces Policy Board. “You’re never going to replace the 82nd Airborne with the Guard and Reserve.” (Part of the 82nd is on alert for rapid deployment at all times).

Reserve and Guard troops can clearly mobilize and deploy in time for many other missions. Just how many is still debated. Gen. Odierno got some flak from Guard advocacy group NGAUS for saying in a Senate hearing that the Guard would take “two years” to respond to a war erupting in Korea: While the Pentagon has tried to give reserve component members two years’ notice before deployments to Afghanistan and Iraq, that was to help their employers and families make arrangements for their absence. In an unexpected crisis, small and specialized units – such as an Army Reserve medical team or Air Guard transport pilots – could be ready in days, while a full-sized Army National Guard combat brigade might take several months.

Clearly, the regular active-duty force can respond more quickly while the Guard and Reserve provide “depth of response,” as Gen. Odierno said on Wednesday. What’s necessary, he said, is “balance.”

But balance, like beauty, is very much in the eye of the beholder. Active, Guard, and Reserve response timelines depend on specific, complicated military scenarios. Where apparently clear and objective factors come into play, in a way civilian policy makers can easily understand, is when the debate moves to questions of cost. But cost is more complicated than it seems.

Show Me The Money

A part-time soldier is clearly cheaper than a full-time one, but by how much? Just getting all parties to agree on what the costs actually are is difficult, said Lt. Gen. Joseph Lengyel, the vice chief of the National Guard Bureau, at the recent CSIS event. His tongue in cheek advice to the audience? “Never trust any number you have not manipulated yourself.”

Punaro, as is his wont, was blunter: “Because a lot of the active component wants to justify a larger active-duty force,” he said, “they’re going out of their way to cook books.”

“Most of the analysis that you see in the [Defense] Department when it comes to this just ignores common sense because they don’t want to add in all those extra costs, they just want to compare a paycheck to a paycheck,” Punaro went on. “You can’t just take the paycheck… what does it cost you over the life of that person?”

Long-serving regulars and reservists are both eligible for retirement pay, for example, but full-time troops can retire after 20 years in uniform – typically in their early forties – and then draw retirement for the rest of their lives; Reserve and Guard retirees don’t get a dime until age 60. (There are some exceptions in both components, especially those retired for medical disability, who get more generous treatment).

Even before retirement, reserve component troops cost less. Most dramatically, they usually get healthcare through their civilian employers, not through the Department of Defense’s heavily subsidized and money-hemorraghing TRICARE plan. What’s more, they don’t live in Pentagon-subsidized housing, shop at subsidized stores, or send their children to subsidized schools since they don’t live on or near bases.

“With the 850,000 Guard and Reserve personnel mobilized since 9/11, how many family housing units, enlisted barracks, military commissaries [etc.] did we build [for them]?” Punaro asked rhetorically. “The answer is zero…. We never built any.” (By the way, the total number mobilized actually hit 877,735 this week).

Just weeks after he took charge of the Reserve Forces Policy Board in October 2011, Punaro launched an in-depth study of the “fully-burdened life-cycle cost” of active and reserve component personnel. It is that widely-cited study which declared: “a Reserve Component service member costs less than 1/3 that of an Active Component service member.”

Said ROA’s Davis, “that was heard by the active component as a shot across the bow.”

Bensahel and Carter’s Foreign Policy piece is just one of the many places you now see that 1/3 figure. And the 1:3 ratio is remarkably robust, holding up whether you compare “fully burdened life-cycle costs” or just pay. But if you actually read the study cover to cover, the math gets much more complicated. Consider this passage on page 5:

“The cost of an RC service member, when not activated, is less than one third that of their AC counterpart. According to RFPB analysis of the Fiscal Year 2013 budget request, the RC per capita cost ranges from 22% to 32% of their AC counterparts’ per capita costs, depending on which cost elements are included.”

Note three crucial words: “when not activated.”

That means the 1:3 ratio only holds true as long as the reserve or Guard member is not given mobilization orders, put on active duty, and deployed – which is what military personnel are ultimately for. Reservists and Guardsmen cost 1/3 as much as their active-duty counterparts because they’re on retainer.

What you get for that money nowadays is a well-trained and hard-working force, in stark contrast to the traditional and not entirely unjustified stereotype of “weekend warriors” of years past. Nominally the reserve component trains one weekend a month and two weeks in the summer, for a total of 39 days a year. In practice, since 9/11, many of them train much more, even when not mobilized: “39 days is no longer anyone’s expectation,” said Lengyel told the audience at CSIS.

(Just to further complicate things, an archaic regulation means that Guard and Reserve members get 63 days’ pay for those first 39 days of work. But full-time troops get 365 days’ pay for 227 days of work when you take out annual leave and federal holidays. By sheer historical happenstance, both components end up getting 1.6 days’ pay per day of work).

For some Reserve and Guard troops, 39 days a year is all the trainng they need. They can roll right into their military jobs because their civilian ones are so similar. If you’re a civilian surgeon, pilot, mechanic, or computer network administrator, for example, it’s an easy transition to a military hospital, airbase, motor pool, or command center. If you’re a civilian police officer every day and a military policeman when mobilized, you have to bone up on different regulations, weapons, and tactics, but the difference is not huge.

But there is no civilian equivalent for a tank gunner, artilleryman, or infantry soldier – and such combat troops require not only individual training, but expensive field exercises to practice working in large units.

So the cost to actually make use of reserve component troops – to mobilize them, train them to full readiness, and deploy them – varies widely with what kind of troops they are. What’s more, those costs are often hidden, because much pre-deployment training is conducted by regular active-duty instructors at active component bases using active component equipment, none of which comes out of the reserve component budget. As the Punaro study itself acknowledges, without offering specific figures, “A significant portion of the training…for Reserve Component members is conducted by the Active Component at their expense.”

Nor do the Reserve and Guard pay overhead costs such as basic training or research and development of new weapons systems. And while some of the reserve component’s equipment is bought specifically for the RC under clearly labeled line items in the budget, a lot of it is second-hand equipment transfered from active component units, free of charge.

“When we talk about cost, I think the Army Guard today is about 9 percent of the Army’s total obligation authority,” said Gen. Frank Grass, chief of the National Guard Bureau, at CSIS. “But that doesn’t tell the whole story,” he said. “You cannot separate us from our.. federal relationship with the Army and Air Force… Sometimes the numbers can get lost a bit.”

So when active-component partisans say the Guard and Reserve are more expensive than regulars, they have a point – but only if you frame the comparison very, very carefully.

The Punaro study looks at the costs of individuals, but a draft report from the Pentagon’s Director of Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation (CAPE), obtained by Military Times, tackles the cost of entire units. Specifically, it compares one of the kinds of units that is hardest to get ready for the Guard, an infantry brigade combat team (IBCT). (Only the Guard has such large combat units, not the Reserves). According to CAPE’s leaked draft – which the Pentagon points out is a work in progress – it takes 7 to 21 days and $8 million to get a regular active-duty infantry brigade ready to deploy. For a Guard infantry brigade, it takes 80-110 days and $163 million.

But of course that’s because you’ve been paying for the active-component unit to train all year round, not keeping it on retainer to train for 39 days. The CAPE study goes on to calculate the cost of running an active-duty brigade, without deploying it, at a $277 million a year. A Guard brigade that’s not deployed costs only $66 million. For those of you following along with your calculators at home, that’s actually a bigger cost difference than the 1:3 ratio in the Punaro study: It’s slightly better than 1:4.

The math doesn’t stop there, however, because once they are deployed, active and reserve units cost almost exactly the same. Almost: Even when mobilized to active duty, Reservists and Guardsmen still cost slightly less, in the long run, because they’re not accruing retirement pay at the same rate as their active component counterparts. But costs like fuel, ammunition, fortifying bases, and – most grim of all – evacuating or burying casualties vary wildly with the mission.

So it’s understandable, if aggravating, that the draft CAPE study doesn’t attempt an all-up comparison of the cost to keep a brigade’s worth of troops deployed indefinitely.

In the final analysis, the best option depends on how often you actually go to war, and what kind of war you’ll wage, factors which are difficult to predict.

If you expect lots of short-notice, short-duration contingencies, you need to put your money on the regular active-duty force: Only the smallest and most specialized reserve units could deploy before the crisis was already over. If you’re committed to a long-term, large-scale conflict, as we have been for a decade, then you have time to mobilize the largest Guard formations – and you’ll have to as the regulars get worn down. Even today there are 54,163 Reserve and Guard troops on active duty.

Whatever course you choose for the post-war, post-sequester world, however, it’s clear that the Reserve and Guard don’t want to go back to the bad old days of “weekend warriors,” when they were a “break glass in case of war” force that almost never deployed.

“I don’t think the National Guard’s tired. I don’t think the National Guard’s looking for an opportunity to take a knee,” said Lt. Gen. Lengyel. “We’re looking for an opportunity to stay engaged in the future at an even greater rate.”

The problem for everyone will be how to pay for it.


Edited 8:00 pm.

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