WASHINGTON -- The National Guard hopes to gain from pending cuts to the regular Army's ranks, arguing that part-time soldiers are more cost-effective than their active-duty peers and could save $13 billion annually.
The Guard's gambit, revealed in interviews and documents obtained by USA TODAY, exposes a widening rift among and between the services as the fight over funding intensifies in the era of Pentagon austerity. Guard leaders maintain that the Army could be cut to as few as 420,000 soldiers if the Guard is allowed to expand. Army leaders say a force that small cannot defend the nation. The Army has about 540,000 soldiers now and is scheduled to reduce its ranks to 490,000 by 2017. Dipping below 450,000 soldiers could prevent the Army from winning a war, according to documents.
"The nation cannot afford to have a large standing army right now." said John Goheen, spokesman for the National Guard Association, the body's lobbying arm in Washington. Guard personnel represent a better bargain than than full-time soldiers as the nation ends its combat commitment in Afghanistan in 2014, Goheen said. Guard soldiers cost less than their active-duty counterparts because they train less frequently, don't live in subsidized housing and are called upon only when needed.
"The nation needs to have a debate on this topic," he said.
Spokesmen for the Army at the Pentagon declined to comment for this story.
Each state has a National Guard, which can be called upon by the president to fight. Guard units served alongside regular Army soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan. They often serve in combat-support roles, such as driving truck convoys, but also maintain fighting units.
Those units known as Brigade Combat Teams could be cut from the Army and shifted to the Guard where they could be called upon when needed. Some of the money saved by slashing the Army by 70,000 soldiers would be used would build six combat brigades for the National Guard, according to documents used to brief members of Congress. The Guard Association estimates that change could also save $13 billion per year.
How much – not whether – to reduce the Pentagon's fighting ranks is an issue coming to the forefront. Although the automatic budget cuts known as sequestration have eased for the Pentagon for the next two years, they still remain in effect thereafter.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has indicated he prefers a smaller force of troops equipped with modern weapons. Last week, Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, noted that cuts in troop levels are coming. "Some of the force structure changes, force structure reductions that we had planned based on sequestration will march on," he said.
The Guard is positioning itself to take advantage of the reductions, and the White House strategy states long-term occupations such as those fought in Iraq and Afghanistan will be avoided. The military's combat mission in Afghanistan will cease at the end of 2014.
The Guard's approach is a smart one, and the active-duty Army is out of step with the times, said Gordon Adams, a professor at American University and a former Clinton-era Pentagon budget official.
"With the end of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Army needs to be neither as large nor, frankly, as ready as it is today," Adams said. "Even at 420,000 it will be by far one of the largest ground forces in the world – and we are not going to ground combat with the big ones in Russia or in China."
The Guard approach is at odds with that of Gen. Raymond Odierno, the Army's chief of staff. He has briefed top Pentagon officials, saying a force of 420,000 active-duty soldiers cannot adequately defend the nation.
Army leaders have expressed concerns that sequestration is forecast to hit active duty forces more than the National Guard, according to a presentation they made to the National Governors Association last month. The ranks of active-duty soldiers would decline 26% from 2011 to 2019 compared with a 12% drop for the National Guard.
The presentation notes that active-duty soldiers train about 220 days per year compared with 39 for the Guard. Active-duty soldiers may cost more, it says, but they're ready to fight and more proficient at it. The Guard can "surge to higher levels…as needed."
Goheen disputed the notion that guardsmen aren't ready to fight. After more than a decade of war, many Guard units have plenty of experience at war. "We have some combat-hardened soldiers in the Guard," he said. "These are experienced warriors."
The Army swelled its ranks to about 570,000 to accommodate demand for troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. Shrinking it now and investing more on the Guard makes sense, Adams said. "The experience from 2006-09 was that it was easier than even the Army expected to increase the size of the ground force rapidly, with good capability," he said. "A well-prepared Guard and Reserve would make it even easier."