The Key to Reshaping the Army: A Robust, Operational Army Guard


A recent TIME Magazine article by Mark Thompson, “Reshaping the Army,"  argues that the United States Army is at a crossroads, struggling to find its role in an uncertain budgetary future.  After over a decade of conflict in Afghanistan and Iraq, an Asian “pivot” that focuses primarily on increased naval and air power and a shift towards irregular and hybrid threats, the Army faces an inevitable drawdown in force and a need to reinvent itself.  Curiously absent from the article is the role of the Army National Guard and how a strengthened, operationally deployed Army Guard can ensure the Army meets its constitutional mandate for a common defense against conventional and irregular threats.

Repurposing, not bleeding talent
As the Army faces the prospect of drawing down its end strength from 534,000 today to as low as 390,000 by 2023, the Army will have to shed thousands of officers and soldiers, many with irreplaceable combat experience. Any competent commander will tell you that losing soldiers with deployment experience is detrimental to the entire force.  Increasing the Army National Guard end strength can serve to capture many of these combat-tested leaders and soldiers, and retain the force’s operational experience.

Ready, relevant and versatile
The Army National Guard has proven itself as a force designed to meet the uncertainties of future conflict. For over twenty years, Army Guardsmen have participated in the State Partnership Program (SPP), cross-training with over 60 nations and forging critical and long-lasting partnerships with allies old and new.  The SPP has been so successful that the Active Army has recently mirrored its model by aligning units to train with friendly nations in regional combatant commands.

Army Guardsmen formed the core of Agri-Business Development Teams during Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan, exploiting the expertise of citizen-soldiers with farming backgrounds to advise provincial and district agencies on improving the Afghan agricultural sector. Such flexibility and use of civilian expertise can only be delivered by National Guardsmen.

In the growing cyber battlespace, no component is more readily equipped than the National Guard, who can draw on the best and brightest computer network and information technology professionals our nation has to offer, without the burden of building their skills from scratch.

Cost-effective without sacrificing competence
As Thompson points out, the mounting healthcare and pay costs of soldiers and veterans are consuming an increasing share of the Army’s overall budget. Retired Maj. Gen. Arnold Punaro, chairman of the Reserve Forces Policy Board, is concerned that the spiraling personnel costs “will turn the Department of Defense into a benefits company that occasionally kills a terrorist.” Army Guardsmen do not require the same financial investment from the budget, and when not activated cost less than one-third that of their Active Duty counterpart. Increasing the Army Guard allows the Army to retain much of its combat power and its ability to be prepared for conventional and asymmetric threats, all at a fraction of the cost of Active Duty units. It permits the Army to “have its cake and eat it too,” even in a fiscally constrained environment.

The right choice for national security
The days of big budgets for the Army to counter a Soviet-era threat are over, but the Army still needs to be able to respond to a diverse spectrum of threats, from conventional state actors to urban insurgencies. As echoed by George Washington in his “Sentiments on a Peace Establishment,” the United States should maintain a robust, operational national militia “ever ready for Action and zealous to be employed whenever it may become necessary in the service of their Country.” As budgets get leaner and threats to our nation become more diverse, the Army Guard remains the solution for a capable, adaptive and cost-effective fighting force. 

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