Gen. Grass: At historic peak, National Guard faces challenges, should stay operational
U.S. Army Capt. Derek C. Knapp, from Austin, Texas, with Security Force Assistance Team 10, Texas Army National Guard, and his Afghan Border Police counterpart discuss security during a shura near the area known as the "Jungle" during Operation Southern Fist III March 5, 2013, in the district of Spin Boldak, Kandahar province, Afghanistan. Insurgents use the Jungle during the summer fighting season as an infiltration route and cache site. (Army National Guard photo by Staff Sgt. Shane Hamann)

WASHINGTON - At a historic peak of excellence, the National Guard faces significant challenges and should remain an operational force, Army Gen. Frank Grass told U.S. congressmen Wednesday.

"The National Guard today is better trained, better equipped and better led than at any time in the 376-year history," Grass testified at a House Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense hearing on oversight of the National Guard and the Army Reserve. "Our soldiers and airmen are ready, and they expect to deploy for the future."

Among challenges that the chief of the National Guard Bureau said the National Guard confronts:

• Employment stability for Guard members employed by relatively small employers.

• Sequestration-related uncertainty about what condition Army and Air National Guard equipment will be in when it is returned to the states and territories from overseas operations.

• Sequestration-related uncertainty about future training opportunities for Guard members.

"The United States is nearing the conclusion of its longest continuous period of war," said Grass, who also is a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. "The National Guard has supported combat operations while responding at home to significant natural and man-made disasters of a magnitude and impact rarely seen in a similar period in our nation's history."

Grass cited highlights since the Sept. 11 attacks:

• Overseas operations: Guard members deployed more than 750,000 times to Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere.

• Domestic response: In 2012 alone, citizen-soldiers and -airmen provided defense support to civilian authorities more than 100 times, most recently for Hurricane Sandy.

• National special security events: In the last 15 months, Guard members assisted at the Republican and Democratic national conventions, the G8, NATO and Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summits, the presidential inauguration and the Super Bowl.

• State Partnership Program: For more than 20 years, the National Guard SPP has built enduring security relationships between states and territories and 65 foreign countries. "Forty-seven (SPP) countries have provided well over 30,000 troops and military experts to United Nations peacekeeping operations and well over 11,000 troops to the effort in Afghanistan," Grass said. "This program provides great security benefits at very low cost."

Among his priorities for the National Guard, Grass said that it should remain an operational reserve component.

"It doesn't take that much money to sustain an operational reserve component," Grass said. "We ... want to maintain our engagement overseas, whether that's supporting the operations in Kosovo, where we are today ... in the Sinai Desert, or wherever to follow on Afghanistan. We want to be a part of theater security cooperation. ... Maintaining that operational force is critical to us as a nation and as a Guard."

One of Grass' questions posed to Guard members of all ranks at almost every opportunity he has had to visit with troops during his first six months as chief of the National Guard Bureau has been whether they remain enthusiastic about deployment opportunities or have been burned out by the higher operations tempo of the last 11 years.

"Congressmen," Grass testified, "this generation of warriors - both Air and Army - expect to deploy. They expect to deploy in a predictable manner. ... Whether it's a six-month or a nine-month deployment, they want to be a part of that."

On the employment challenge, Grass said large-scale employers tend to be better able to absorb both domestic responses such as for Hurricane Sandy and overseas deployments.

"As you get down into the smaller (size) of employment organizations, ... that turnover creates a lot of turbulence," he said.

Increased deployment predictability and closer relations between Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve volunteers and local employers were among solutions Grass suggested.

"I don't feel good at all about what's going to happen in the next couple of years with an already huge backlog of equipment," Grass told the subcommittee.

At issue is whether equipment returning from Kuwait and Afghanistan will be returned to armories after a full reset and depot-level maintenance, known as "back to zero miles," or whether sequestration and continuing resolutions will mean that it will be returned without that maintenance.

Grass said he and the directors of the Army and Air National Guards are particularly concerned about tactical vehicles and rotary wing aircraft.

"When you start getting ... two, three years down the road on this current sequestration plan, ... the backlog will occur," Grass said. "(It) will take us years to recover from that, and it will take us longer and longer to respond to state needs and especially to a complex catastrophe - which is what keeps me up at night."

Training opportunities are a similar challenge for similar reasons.

"In the last 12 years, we've had an opportunity to get all the training we need," Grass said. "If we don't have those programs to train and equip our forces, we won't have leaders for the future, and that will create a hollow force in the Guard."

Increased use of simulators is one potential solution to training challenges, and Grass cited the annual Vigilant Guard exercises conducted with Northern Command, Army North, Air Force North, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Department of Homeland Security and other partners as one example of the successful use of simulators for training purposes.

Grass also said the National Guard is working closely with FEMA to develop complex catastrophe scenarios for a major hurricane hitting a densely populated area, for a catastrophic earthquake and for a dirty bomb the results of which will inform future equipment priorities.

Page last updated Sat March 23rd, 2013 at 00:00