Guard's Status Rising With Leader's Rank

By Josh White
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 17, 2008

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates yesterday made the first nomination for a four-star general to lead the National Guard, a move that should give the reserve force a significant boost in influence inside the Pentagon during an era when the Guard has played a critical role in the nation's wars abroad.

Gates said he has recommended Lt. Gen. Craig R. McKinley, the director of the Air National Guard, to take over as chief of the National Guard Bureau and to receive a fourth star. The position has traditionally been filled by a three-star general, but legislation passed earlier this year required elevating the job to a full general's billet.

The move will put the chief of the National Guard on par with the highest commanders in the U.S. military and, if he is confirmed, will give McKinley a seat at the table as a peer with the nation's approximately 40 other four-star generals. Such generals lead the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps or run the military's top joint operations, such as U.S. Central Command, which oversees the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Gates also announced that he is nominating the current Guard chief, Lt. Gen. H. Steven Blum, to take over as the first guardsman to be the deputy commander of U.S. Northern Command, which oversees security in North America.

"The elevation of the National Guard chief to four stars recognizes the enhanced importance of the Guard to America's overall national defense," Gates told reporters at the Pentagon yesterday. "In recent years, facilitated by General Blum's strong leadership, the National Guard has transformed from an often-neglected strategic reserve to a force that is an indispensable component of the operational military."

Since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the National Guard has played an unprecedented role in both domestic and international missions, mobilizing more than 300,000 guardsmen to support the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan while also tackling massive natural disasters such as Hurricane Katrina.

Of the 462,000 people in the Army National Guard and the Air National Guard today, more than 50,000 are deployed around the globe on active duty, according to the National Guard. As of yesterday, 543 had died in such operations since Sept. 11, 2001.

"The National Guard is an integral part of the defense establishment, and this has been a long time coming," said retired Brig. Gen. Stephen M. Koper, president of the National Guard Association, which has been pushing for such official "empowerment" for years.

Military experts said the move will give the Guard's top officer more clout in discussions about resources and in budgetary matters and will allow the commander to have more frank discussions with the top officers in the military services.

But the new four-star position does not afford the National Guard representation in the Joint Chiefs of Staff -- the top operational advisers to the defense secretary and the president -- a position Guard officials continue to covet.

"In the Pentagon, a four-star general has an entirely different status than a three-star general," said Edwin Dorn, a professor at the University of Texas who was undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness under President Bill Clinton. "While in a sense they gained in terms of status and influence over resource allocation, they will still need to fight in terms of operational issues."

Sens. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) and Kit Bond (R-Mo.), co-chairmen of the Senate National Guard Caucus, wrote the legislation that gave the Guard more power. They praised Gates's nomination yesterday.

"Today's National Guard is a 21st-century force that has been trapped in a 20th-century decision structure within the Pentagon," Leahy said. "It's time to clear out the cobwebs."

Bond agreed: "Senator Leahy and I have worked for years to put the Guard on equal footing with decision-makers at the Pentagon, and with the creation of a new four-star general to lead the Guard we are a step closer to achieving this vision."

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