Don't Downsize The Guard
Funding Shortages Risk Creating a Second-Rate Army

By Melvin R. Laird
Monday, February 6, 2006

There is great interest in the debate over our Army's force structure, strategy and the relevance of the "Total Force" concept in the 21st century. Some have argued that the Total Force concept no longer "fits" our nation's military strategy. Reflecting on all the reasons that the country adopted this concept in the 1970s, one must conclude that, to the contrary, it fits now more than ever.

We shouldn't forget that the Total Force concept was based on the hard lessons of the Vietnam War and fiscal realities. The Guard and reserves were not mobilized during that conflict because President Lyndon B. Johnson preferred to use the draft rather than risk the political fallout of activating units in America's heartland. When the Total Force concept was announced in August 1970, our plan was to integrate Guard and reserve forces as full partners in defense. In so doing we were able to end the draft and establish the all-volunteer force. Better training and fully equipping our nation's militia would be essential to ensure that we had a cost-effective force.

Fast-forward 30 years.

As we have experienced since the Persian Gulf War, when you call out Guard or reserve units, you call out America. The National Guard provides, through its dual state and federal mission, the necessary friction between the states and the executive and legislative branches to promote dialogue and debate about the nation's defense priorities and policies. The Defense Department should learn a lesson or two from the recently completed Base Realignment and Closure Commission. Governors and members of Congress are stakeholders in the defense of America. The Defense Department would be wise to work with them when addressing the states' Guard and reserve policies.

When examining the contributions to today's war on terrorism, one sees a force in which the Guard and reserves have flown over 80 percent of all airlift missions and provided as many as half of the troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. But under the rubric of transformation, the National Guard is in danger of becoming a second-rate force, falling behind in modern equipment and trained personnel. The new Quadrennial Defense Review reduces the Guard and reserves overall by more than 45,000 members, and it appears to be a polite way of starting downsizing.

The Defense Department should not tax its most cost-efficient agencies, the National Guard and reserves, to fund other shortfalls. The Army's budget is not sufficient to maintain or refit the regular forces, Reserve and National Guard, even to meet the limited military strategy being followed by the Pentagon. Our Army's equipment is in need of reconditioning and replacement after four years of war.

The percentage of military spending has not kept pace with the reality of a global war on terrorism. The nation is at war -- at home and abroad. The cost of freedom has risen since Sept. 11. It will not be easy or popular to reverse the downward trend in defense spending. But the realities of the global terrorist threat and the outside possibility of conventional warfare from a challenge by a China, Iran or North Korea demand that we take off the blinders.

As one who was there at the formulation of the Total Force concept -- with the end of the draft and creation of the all-volunteer force, with the Guard and reserves properly equipped and trained -- I would argue that discontinuing these policies is not the answer to defense spending shortfalls. If we go back to the National Guard and reserves relegated to hand-me-down equipment -- an afterthought -- then the lessons of Vietnam will have been forgotten. Our economy is large, growing and productive, and can absorb needed additional outlays.

The Total Force concept has been a victory for America; I urge the Defense Department leadership not to turn it into a defeat. Energize the Total Force concept. The National Guard and reserves are -- along with a properly configured regular force -- the cost-effective solution for an uncertain future.

The writer was a Republican representative from Wisconsin for nine terms and then served as defense secretary from 1969 to 1973. He is senior counselor for national and international affairs at the Reader's Digest Association Inc.

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