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Governors, National Guard community push back against defense cuts

- The Washington Times - Monday, March 3, 2014

State governors and key players in the Army National Guard community are pushing back against the Obama administration's proposed defense cuts, saying they will hurt the number of guard members available to respond to emergencies inside the U.S.

The restructuring — part of the Fiscal Year 2015 budget to be unveiled by the White House on Tuesday — calls for cutting the nation's existing guard force by 20,000 soldiers, a move that the head of the National Guard Association of the United States says could result in states no longer being able to send reinforcements to each other within the first 24 hours of future natural disasters.

The plan was simply "not well thought out," retired Army National Guard Adjutant General Gus Hargett told The Washington Times in an interview.

His assessment was echoed last week by governors of all 50 states, who wrote a letter to President Obama saying they could live with Guard force cuts of 5,000 soldiers that would bring the force back to levels before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. But they would "strongly oppose" the administration's plan to shrink the force from the current 355,000 down to 335,000 soldiers.

While media attention has focused on other military cuts announced by Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel last week, state governors are seeking to draw equal attention to cuts proposed for the Army National Guard and Reserves.

Under the administration's current plan, the combined number of Army National Guard and Reserves will drop from 557,000 to 530,000 — a decision the state governors say they intend to challenge.

Utah Gov. Gary Herbert, a Republican, told The Times that he and other governors want reassurance that active-duty Army and Army reserve components have been "balanced appropriately."

"If we're going to be cutting back, you'll probably need to be cutting back where most of the growth has occurred," he said. "It would be probably wise for the military readiness — and for the actual mission of the [Army] National Guard — to cut us back to pre-9/11 levels."

Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee, an independent, said he and other governors met with Mr. Obama at the White House recently and the president was "forceful" when describing the defense budget and tough choices he said Congress has forced his administration to make.

Mr. Chafee told The Times that he appreciates how "difficult budget decisions" had to be made, but questioned the plan to shrink the Army National Guard. During worst case scenarios involving hurricanes or blizzards, the governor said, Rhode Island may be forced to rely more heavily upon local and state-level emergency management agencies.

Mr. Herbert added that state governors are giving serious consideration to calling on Congress to create a special independent commission to review the Army's future force structure and examine its active and reserve component mix.

In their letter to Mr. Obama on Friday, the governors said such a commission should be modeled after the National Commission on the Structure of the Air Force, which Congress created after the Pentagon attempted to cut personnel and equipment from the Air National Guard in its Fiscal Year 2013 defense budget plan.

"You've got virtually every governor in America, Democrat and Republican, together on this," Mr. Herbert said. "It's not a matter of not recognizing that we need to cut, that we need to live within our means. I think we all understand that."

"It's just where [do] we strategically make those cuts," he queried. "If we can't come to a point where both sides agree, then this needs to be put in some kind of study, similar to what we did with the Air Force."

Former senior defense officials and state lawmakers agree that a dysfunctional Congress has forced Mr. Hagel to craft the controversial defense budget cuts that diminishes military capability and creates domestic security concerns.

Specifically, across-the-board budget cuts mandated by sequestration last year put a heavy burden on the Pentagon going forward.

In an interview with The Times last week, former Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Mr. Hagel faces "an extraordinarily difficult situation" that involves having to target force sizes and procurement programs in order to meet Congressionally mandated constraints that prohibit cuts to certain big-ticket budget items.

"If the Congress won't let you do anything about benefits and compensation, which are anything from a third to a half of the defense budget, then your options are pretty limited," said Mr. Gates. "I think this is one of the reasons why I think the service chiefs have gone along with, and supported the decisions that have been made, because I don't think they had very many choices."

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