By Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 1, 2008
The U.S. military is not prepared to meet catastrophic threats at home, and it is suffering from an "appalling gap" in forces able to respond to chemical, biological and nuclear strikes on U.S. soil, according to a congressional commission report released yesterday.
The situation is rooted in severe readiness problems in National Guard and reserve forces, which would otherwise be well-suited to respond to domestic crises but lack sufficient personnel and training, as well as $48 billion in equipment because of deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan, according to a report by the Commission on the National Guard and Reserves.
Guard readiness has continued to slide since last March, when the panel found that 88 percent of Army National Guard units were rated "not ready," said retired Marine Maj. Gen. Arnold L. Punaro, the commission chairman.
"We think there is an appalling gap in readiness for homeland defense, because it will be the Guard and reserve that have to respond for these things," he said in an interview, noting that the reserves are present in 3,000 U.S. communities. The commission, which was established in 2005, has 12 members, including several other former military officers.
"Because the nation has not adequately resourced its forces designated for response to weapons of mass destruction, it does not have sufficient trained, ready forces available," the report said. "This is an appalling gap that places the nation and its citizens at greater risk."
The Pentagon and Congress must transform and upgrade the nation's military reserves into an operational force with many of the same capabilities as active-duty forces, said the 400-page report. The military must also carry out the same kind of exhaustive contingency planning for domestic attacks and catastrophes as it does for those overseas, said the report, which includes 95 recommendations.
"You shouldn't be dealing with WMD scenarios with 52 pickup," Punaro said, referring to a joke that involves scattering a deck of cards. "It needs to be part of the deliberative planning process."
The commission criticized steps taken by the Defense Department and Congress to create an operational reserve force as "reactive" and "timid," saying there has been no serious debate on the matter vital to national security.
Greater funding is needed to fully train and equip the military's 836,000 selected reserves so they can operate interchangeably with the active-duty personnel, Punaro said. He noted, however, that the reserves are highly cost-effective, contributing about 44 percent of U.S. military personnel but consuming only 9 percent of the Pentagon budget.
"It's a food fight over resources going on right now," Punaro said. "DOD can't have it both ways. They can't say they want it, 'but only if we don't have to pay for it,' " he said.
Punaro said he expects a "quick turnaround" on the latest recommendations, praising Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates as a "bureaucracy buster" who embraced 20 of 23 proposals the commission made in its interim report last March.
The panel also recommended that the Pentagon provide the bulk of support to civilian authorities if local responders are overwhelmed by a major catastrophe; that state governors be allowed to command federal troops in response to disasters; and that the head or deputy head of U.S. Northern Command, which leads the Pentagon's homeland defense efforts, be a Guard or reserve officer.
Since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, nearly 600,000 reservists have served in Iraq, Afghanistan or other countries as part of the anti-terrorism campaign, and the use of reservists has risen more than fivefold, according to the report. Without a strong reserve force, the nation would be more likely to have to resort to a draft, which would be unfeasible both politically and militarily, Punaro said.