WASHINGTON (American Forces Press Service, April 11, 2007) - The National Guard force is second to none in terms of the quality of its people, but severe equipment shortfalls are keeping it from being fully ready, the chief of the National Guard Bureau told Congress today.

Lt. Gen. H Steven Blum urged the Senate Appropriations Defense Subcommittee to support the fiscal 2008 National Guard budget requests to ensure the Guard can continue serving as the country's "21st century Minutemen and -women."

Guard forces deployed overseas are "superbly equipped and superbly trained, ... and we want for nothing," Lt. Gen. Blum told the subcommittee.

But he said the situation at home isn't nearly as rosy. "It's a much different story, and it's not a good story," he said.

"The National Guard today, I am sad to say, is not a fully ready force," the general said. "Unresourced shortfalls still exist that approach $40 billion to provide the equipment and the training that I personally feel your Army and Air National Guard are expected to have to be able to respond to the citizens of the United States."

Lt. Gen. Blum introduced two Guard members who exemplify this gap.

One, an Oregon Air Guard staff sergeant who just completed a third combat tour in Iraq, returned home to his unit to train on equipment built in 1953. "Now imagine being a combat controller in a critical mission like that and operating with unreliable old equipment built in 1953," Lt. Gen. Blum told the subcommittee. "I think that says it all. So while we have the best people, we have some significant equipment challenges."

A Kansas Army Guardsman who accompanied Lt. Gen. Blum to the hearing faces an even more serious issue, he said. Returned from Iraq in November, the Soldier "doesn't have a problem of old equipment," the general said. "He has a problem of no equipment."

His unit, after leaving its own equipment in Iraq for the unit that replaced them, returned home to just two Humvees, both deemed "not good enough to go to war," Lt. Gen. Blum said. "And that's the equipment he has in his unit today."

Should a tornado or other stateside disaster require a Guard mobilization, the unit's ability to respond would be minimized, "not because of the great people in it, but because of the lack of equipment that is in that unit right now," he said.

Lt. Gen. Blum said the problem has reached epidemic levels, particularly in the Army. Most of the units in the Army and Air National Guard are underequipped for the jobs and the missions they have to perform with no notice here at home," he said. "Can we do the job' Yes, we can. But the lack of equipment makes it take longer to do that job, and lost time translates into lost lives, and those lost lives are American lives."

He urged Congress to address these shortfalls, noting the defense bargain the National Guard represents. The Army Guard makes up almost 40 percent of the Army's combat, combat support and combat service support structure, but costs just 11 percent of the Army's budget, he said. Similarly, the Air Guard provides more than one-third of the Air Force capability, at just 6 percent of the Air Force's budget.

"Plus, your Army and Air National Guard are the only Department of Defense forces that can be called upon by the governors with no notice to do what is necessary right here in the zip codes where your constituents reside," he said.

Lt. Gen. Blum said these statistics demonstrate the importance of the National Guard, not only in the global war on terror, but as an on-call force ready to respond to stateside emergencies.

"This nation cannot afford the consequences of an unready Army and Air National Guard," Lt. Gen. Blum said. "A strong and properly resourced National Guard, I think, is the best credible deterrent for any of our adversaries overseas that might miscalculate and think that we are unable to respond."

Army Lt. Gen. Clyde Vaughn, vice chief of the National Guard Bureau, reported that recruiting and retention in the Army Guard is on the upswing since last year. "We have averaged, at a net, over 1,000 a month to our end strength," he said.

He urged Congress to provide the resources these troops need to be mission-ready, citing the newly retired Army Chief of Staff Gen. Peter Schoomaker's mantra, "Don't confuse enthusiasm with capability."

"I can tell you that we have the enthusiasm," Lt. Gen. Vaughn told the senators. "The capabilities, you buy. You buy it in terms of training dollars, and you buy it in terms of equipment."

Air Force Lt. Gen. Craig McKinley, the Air National Guard's vice chief, joined Lt. Gen. Blum and Lt. Gen. Vaughn in urging congressional support for the National Guard budget requests. In the midst of tremendous "churn" within the force -- much of it due to the Base Realignment and Closure process -- the Air Guard continues to operate as a highly effective force, he said.

"Your Air National Guard is ready to fight today," he said. "They are totally integrated in the United States Air Force in the global war on terror; they are fighting the away game very professionally in all theaters of the globe, and we are also providing great support here at home."

Maintaining this capability requires solid funding so the force can modernize, Lt. Gen. McKinley said. "It is extremely important to the Air National Guard that our Air Force continues to recapitalize so we can transition the 20th century Air National Guard into a highly effective combat capable 21st century Air National Guard," he said.