It’s Time for an Honest Conversation about the Total Force

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It is now apparent that the long-simmering conflict between the Army and the Army National Guard has become a full-fledged shooting war. This war is damaging not just to the Army and the Army National Guard, but to the Total Force concept that our Army has adopted as a result of Gen. Creighton Abrams’ forward thinking. At the heart of the matter is a need to have a reaffirmation of the commitment to the Total Force policy and an honest discussion across all Army components on how the force is structured for the future.

Comments such as those made by Maj. Gen. Rossi, the director of the Army’s Quadrennial Defense Review, as well as the Army’s budget plans for fiscal 2015 and beyond have provoked a strong response from National Guardsmen across the United States, including a stern rebuke from the Adjutants General Association of the United States.

In Sydney Freedberg’s Breaking Defense piece, Rossi’s comments painted a picture that has been echoed by several other senior Army leaders: Army National Guard units are not interchangeable.

“We have to be careful that….we don’t walk away with the wrong lessons,” Rossi told me. “Work hand in hand? Yes. Work side by side? Yes. Interchangeable? The answer on that is no.

Rossi took pains to emphasize he wasn’t casting aspersions on the service of any individual Guard soldier. “Regular, Reserve, and Guard are all professionals,” Rossi told me. “This is not about individuals[:] This is about team practice.”

The oft-repeated argument that the National Guard is not interchangeable is one that senior Army leaders trot out as if the Army has no responsibility in this perceived lack of compatibility. Maj. Gen. David Baldwin, the adjutant general of the California National Guard, explains in a Facebook post that this is a primary mission of the Regular Army:

“It is the responsibility of the Active Army to resource, train, and prepare the Guard. Guard units achieve the level of readiness that the Active Component leadership allows them to achieve. If the Guard can't achieve readiness at the level organized (i.e. BCTs), then that is the AC's fault and it is their fault by choice. It is interesting that MG Rossi fails to mention that the Air Force and Marine Corps have no trouble getting their Guard and Reserve combat formations ready and into the fight. And Air Guard combat units are required to be able to deploy in less than 72 hours.”

The idea that the Regular Army is responsible for the proper training and preparation of the National Guard is not new. George Washington envisioned a small Regular Army charged with providing immediate defense of the nation augmented by a large, standardized and operational militia. The Regular Army would also serve as keepers of institutional knowledge and work seamlessly with the militia to ensure proper training of officers and soldiers (For a more detailed look at Washington’s plan, read his “Sentiments on a Peace Establishment” and Brig Gen. John McAuley Palmer’s “America in Arms”.)

Ultimately, the biggest losers in a battle between the Army and the Army Guard are the American people. An undermanned and underequipped Army leads to a vulnerable nation, while an expensive and oversized Army leads to a bankrupt nation. The Total Force policy, as it should be implemented, takes into account the strengths of each component and provides for a powerful, flexible and cost-effective military force ready to respond to future threats. Baldwin challenges senior active leaders to commit to the Total Force policy:

“[The Active Army] needs to join us as a true Total Army and integrate with our formations; take ownership of our readiness… instead of defending an anachronistic Cold War construct of an expensive, large standing Army…The greatest threat to our National Security in the near and mid-term is economic, not military. The strength of our nation isn't the (Active) Army. It is our economic might. That economic strength is eroded when we can't transform institutions that are defended by entrenched bureaucracies and leaders that can't escape the chains of institutional bias and truly innovate. Having said all that, the public fight isn't healthy for all of us in ACUs. I challenge the leaders of the Total Army to abandon this intramural firefight. “

The Army needs to take a good, hard look at where it is going and what it will look like. All components have their inherent strengths and weaknesses, and these need to be taken into account when future force structure is determined. An independent commission like one proposed by Rep. Joe Wilson, R-S.C., and more than 125 other members of Congress would cut through institutional biases and help create a true Total Force Army with input from all components. Our soldiers, active Army, Army Reserve and Army National Guard deserve this conversation and our nation deserves it even more.

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