[UPDATED with Army & Senate responses] WASHINGTON: After convening in Washington for briefings on the Army budget and how to implement it, the state-level commanders of the National Guard have instead launched a new offensive against the Army plan to cut their forces, flooding Capitol Hill with letters and PowerPoint slides (embedded below). Their immediate goal: Get the Senate to introduce counterpart legislation to a House bill that would freeze all changes to the Guard until an independent commission studied the issue. Step two: Get that language in the 2015 National Defense Authorization Act.
“We have not capitulated to anything,” declared Maj. Gen. Ed Tonini, the Adjutant-General of Kentucky and head of the Association of Adjutants-General of the US, AGAUS. (AGAUS is distinct from but in practice joined at the hip with the powerful National Guard Association of the US, NGAUS, which has led the charge against Army leadership in emotionally charged and sometimes personal attacks).
“Our court of last resort is Congress,” Tonini told me Wednesday, and he’s confident Congress will listen. So far, Rep. Joe Wilson’s bill to create a “National Commission on the Structure of the Army,” H.R. 3930, has gathered 167 co-sponsors — significant but still far short of a majority. NGAUS also thinks Wilson’s language as written leaves a loophole for the Army to start moving AH-64 Apache attack helicopters out of the Guard.
There is no equivalent legislation in the Senate — yet. But, Tonini said, “we believe that sometime within the next week or two that a companion Senate bill will be introduced, [and ultimately] we believe it will be part of the NDAA.”
[Updated: “The bill is not final yet, but Senator Leahy is working to put it in final form and expects that will be soon,” said Leahy’s spokesman, David Carle, in an email this afternoon. “To Senator Leahy and Senator Graham, their goal is to get it right (not to get it fast) and they’ve continued to solicit feedback and to make changes. It’s coming along well.”]
(We’re still awaiting comment from the Graham’s office, the National Guard Bureau, and the Army, which we’ll post as soon as we get it).
To support the legislative front, Tonini promises the rhetorical battle will also escalate: “The fact is you will see us be significantly more aggressive now that we’ve seen the ability to speak honestly and straightforwardly taken out of the hands of our leadership.”
“Leadership” specifically means Gen. Frank Grass, director of the National Guard Bureau and a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who has the unenviable position of meditating between the states and the Pentagon. Grass had convened the adjutants-general in Washington this week to brief them on the Army’s proposal to reduce Army National Guard endstrength by 15,000 to 35,000 — depending on how hard sequestration kicks back in — and to direct them to come up with plans to implement those cuts by May 22, less than a month from now.
While Grass opposed the cuts himself and made counter-proposals during the Pentagon’s internal budget process last year, he has always emphasized compromise over conflict and muted any criticism in public. Tonini unequivocally rejected Grass’s stance: “He has to stand by and defend the president’s budget, but he is not speaking for the 54 states and territories.”
By contrast, as the elected leader of the adjutants-general association, Tonini does speak for the 54 state and territorial Guard commanders — although it’s unclear how firmly they are united behind him. One important indicator will be how many of them send their delegations on the Hill customized versions of Tonini’s slide deck detailing the cuts’ impact on their state. (“The following slide must be customized by each state to highlight the effects of the Army’s Budget Proposal,” says the version we have. “Delete this reminder slide.”) I’ve heard unconfirmed rumors that at least two adjutants-general are quietly trying to make side deals with the Army.
Tonini did emphasize to me and to his letter that the Guard would accept some cuts. “We’ve made offerings for concessions in that area that we believe do more to save the money than any current plan that the Army has,” he said. (Critics of the Guard say its numbers don’t add up, but then the Guard side says the same about the Army’s).
Specifically, the Guard counter-proposal detailed in the slides above — and rejected during internal Pentagon budget discussions — would have
- cut Army National Guard endstrength by only 5,000 instead of 15-35,000;
- kept 26 of the Army Guard’s brigade combat teams instead of 22;
- keep eight of its aviation (helicopter) brigades instead of 22 and 6; and
- kept six of the Guard’s eight AH-64 Apache attack helicopter battalions, downsizing the other two to squadrons, instead of transferring all the Apaches to the active-duty Army.
So how would Tonini and co. make up the money? By cutting training, maintenance, and other readiness funds. This doesn’t jibe well with their argument that the Guard is more battle-ready than the regular Army gives it credit for, but then again the regular Army is having to cut training too. The issue, Tonini said, is how to do the least long-term harm.
“If we get rid of our people and board up our armories and units, that is not something that’s reversible,” Tonini told me. “[But] — with money, obviously — we can reverse readiness [cuts] in a big hurry.”
There is still some common ground with the regulars, Tonini said. “We agree with the active component that the BCA, the Budget Control Act [aka sequestration], is devastating to all of DoD and particularly to the Army,” he said. “We are in total concurrence with them on that.”
But if sequestration isn’t rolled back — and a fix looks unlikely — then, Tonini said, “the more draconian the cuts to the Army, that increases the important to maintain as much of the force that you can buy for 25-30 cents on the dollar as you possibly can.”
That argument, of course, gets us back into the complex, bitter debates about just how much the Guard costs and just how ready it is for combat. It will only get harder to debate those critical complexities rationally as the politics and the emotion escalate.
[Updated: This evening, an Army spokesperson, Lt. Col. Don Peters, got back to us with the following reply:
“The Total Army has worked together over the last year to develop a force structure plan, and each Army component participated in that process. The plan now in the DoD budget was the result of a lengthy, deliberate and thorough process that has been assessed and reviewed across multiple levels.
“Under the plan, the Active Army takes a disproportionate share of the cuts, both in overall personnel as well as aviation assets. That was done deliberately to best shape the Total Force to respond to the needs of the nation. This plan protects the National Guard to the best extent possible, but simply put – the money is gone. Ignoring that fact by instituting a freeze on fiscally required cuts would result in decreased readiness, modernization and other critical capabilities needed across the Total Force.
“Both the Secretary of the Army and the Chief of Staff of the Army have been on record regarding a commission, and their statements speak for themselves. Additionally, both have stated what the impacts on the Total Force would be if there is a resumption of the sequestration in FY16. On that point, we are in complete agreement with the National Guard that a Total Force of 920,000 [i.e. 420,000 regulars, 315,000 Guard troops, and 185,000 Army Reservists] presents significant risk.” ]
Updated Monday to insert Lt. Col. Peters’ name, which I’d omitted.