May 13, 2007 / 4:15 PM / 12 years ago

U.S. National Guard chief says funds lagging risks

MUSCATATUCK, Indiana (Reuters) - The National Guard is likely to see an unprecedented level of new funds to fix or replace equipment worn out in Iraq and Afghanistan, but that’s still not enough to make the force ready for homeland missions, its chief said.

National Guard Bureau Army Lt. General Steven Blum speaks at a news briefing in Washington in this May 16, 2006 file photo. The National Guard is likely to see an unprecedented level of new funds to fix or replace equipment worn out in Iraq and Afghanistan, but that's still not enough to make the force ready for homeland missions, its chief said. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas

“The president’s budget is unprecedented in the history of the Guard in providing money to the Army National Guard to reequip,” said Lt. Gen. Steven Blum, chief of the National Guard Bureau.

But still, it leaves equipment gaps, especially in the area of Humvees, trucks and other transport gear, that do not match the level of risk Blum said he sees.

“There’s a serious commitment to do this, but that still only takes us to a level I’d rather not talk about.”

Walking through a fake nuclear attack scene during a training exercise in Muscatatuck, Indiana, Blum said the National Guard needs about $14 billion above the $21.9 billion the Bush Administration has already requested for that reserve force over the next five years.

“It depends on how much risk this nation wants to assume,” he told reporters on Saturday in the midst of the May 7-18 exercise.

“It’s roughly in the vicinity of $14 billion that would buy down the risk to what I think would be an acceptable level, above and beyond” what is already in the fiscal 2008 budget request, he said.

Clearly, as chief of the National Guard, it is part of Blum’s job to lobby for more money. And in fact, many military and defense officials credit Blum’s force of personality for the gains the Guard has made in funding.

But Blum’s call for more also comes as the Guard’s 460,000 soldiers, who have a dual mandate to fight overseas and defend the homeland, face significant equipment shortfalls due to deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan. That has left state governors with roughly half of the equipment needed to respond to disasters within the United States.

The gaps were highlighted last week, when Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, a Democrat, said she did not have the Guard trucks and helicopters needed to respond to a tornado that destroyed a small town.

While the Pentagon disputed the governor’s assertion, and detailed hundreds of pieces of heavy equipment available to the state, Sebelius’ complaints sparked a wave of criticism directed at the Bush administration by anti-war groups and calls from some governors and lawmakers for more funding.

“The domestic demands of the National Guard go on unabated,” said Sen. Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat. “No matter what’s happening overseas, they go on unabated, whether it’s fires, hurricanes, earthquakes, and so on.”

READY OR NOT?

According to U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, state governors have on average about 56 percent of their Guard equipment available. If Congress approved funding the Bush administration requested for the next five years, equipment levels would be up to 76 percent, he said.

Historically, states have had about 70 percent of their authorized equipment, Gates told Congress last week.

But some lawmakers said that’s not enough. Sen. Barbara Mikulski, a Maryland Democrat, told Gates the Guard needs another $5 billion this year, for example.

But the debate over levels of equipment in individual states is misleading, according to some senior military officials.

Air Force Gen. Gene Renuart, commander of U.S. Northern Command, which is responsible for homeland defense, said the United States cannot afford to equip every state so that it can respond on its own to major disasters or attacks, like the recovery exercise in Indiana.

“No state, no state has the capacity to give you everything you need,” he said.

“You can’t afford to have each state equipped for this magnitude of an operation. But as a nation, we need to be positioned in order to move those forces to Indiana, in this scenario.”

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