Funding the congressionally directed National Guard and Reserve Equipment Account has historically been one of the most bipartisan undertakings on Capitol Hill.
Democrats and Republicans in both the House and Senate have long agreed that NGREA (or Na-Gre-Ah as it is pronounced by policy wonks and military leaders) provides the modernization dollars required to keep often older Guard and Reserve equipment in the fight.
The fact that reserve-component service members live in every congressional district only helps stoke lawmaker enthusiasm.
And Defense Department officials have gone along for decades. NGREA helps make the Guard and Reserve more capable, and the dollars lawmakers find for the reserve components are that many less Pentagon officials have to request from Congress.
But this year the account is at the center of political infighting after DoD in February shifted fiscal 2020’s NGREA appropriation to help pay to extend the wall on the southwest border. Defense officials said they targeted the account because it wasn’t in their budget request.
The move took all $1.3 billion in the account, including $790 million for the Army and Air Guard. The account is now zero for fiscal 2020. In all, the Guard involuntarily provided more than $1 billion of the $3.8 billion in this latest Pentagon reprogramming.
In addition to setting up a potential showdown between the president and Democrats, who have introduced legislation to prevent future reprogramming, the action has put an unusual spotlight on NGREA.
Lawmakers created the account nearly four decades ago largely to help Guard equipment keep pace with the better-funded active components.
In 1981, the House Appropriations Committee noted a “tremendous shortage of equipment available to the ... Guard and Reserve both for training for and for deployment under virtually any scenario.”
The committee’s answer was to add NGREA as another line to the annual defense appropriations bill. The funds are a pure plus-up, meaning the account is a congressional add-on and not taken from other defense programs.
NGREA started small. It included just $50 million, all for the Army Guard, in fiscal 1982; however, the appropriation, as well as its importance, grew fast. In 1986, there was $1.5 billion in the account, spread across the six reserve components within DoD.
In the years since, the account has fluctuated wildly. In 1991, almost $2.5 billion was in NGREA; however, in 2003, there was only $98 million. Appropriations grew rapidly during the height of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. In 2007 and 2008, the Army Guard alone received approximately $1.1 billion and $1.3 billion, respectively.
Since fiscal 1982, NGREA has provided the Guard and Reserve more than $35 billion for equipment. The Guard has received the bulk of it.
The funds pay for some new major systems, such as Humvee ambulances, trucks and other vehicles, and training aids, but most of it goes for off-the-shelf solutions to modernize or increase the capability of existing systems, like aircraft.
NGREA dollars in the late 1990s enabled the Air Guard to develop an advanced targeting pod. Guard F-16 Fighting Falcons used the LITENING II pod to direct precision-guided munitions on ground targets early in the war in Iraq.
The Air Guard didn’t stop there. It further modernized its F-16s with NGREA funds, making oldest Vipers in the sky were also the most advanced. Air Force leaders had to invest more in the rest of the F-16 in an at-tempt to keep pace.
Since fiscal 1982, NGREA has provided the Guard and Reserve more than $35 billion for equipment. It is a historic event, and it is going to require a historic response.
DEVELOPING NGREA PRIORITIES actually might be one of the Guard’s easier responsibilities in the program. The process of spending the money often proves more cumbersome.
Once the president signs the defense appropriations act into law, the clock starts ticking. The reserve-component chiefs, including the National Guard Bureau chief for the Army and Air Guard, have 30 days to submit their spending lists through the Office of the Secretary of Defense to Congress. Then they wait. It can take several months for the funds to flow.
Meanwhile, the reserve components remain on the clock, which means they can’t just sit and wait. Equipment acquisitions can be remarkably complex and time-consuming, and 80% of NGREA money must be spent in year one, 90%in year two and 100% by the end of year three.
The early milestones have been challenging to reach in recent years. The problem is Capitol Hill’s reliance on stopgap budgets to fund the government. They allow no new programs, effectively halting new NGREA spending.
Fortunately, officials say, Congress hasn’t closely scrutinized first-year obligation rates. But the Pentagon has, using recent low first-year obligation rates to justify the reprogramming.
At issue now is whether lawmakers will restore the reprogrammed dollars in fiscal 2021 appropriations along with an amount similar to recent years. That would be approximately $2.6 billion.
Mike Hadley, the NGAUS legislative director, isn’t hopeful. He says the reprogramming earlier this year has changed how some lawmakers view NGREA, adding that there is sympathy for the Guard on both sides of the political aisle but little appetite to directly address the missing funds.
Some on Capitol Hill, Hadley says, fear that replacing the funds would only invite further reprogramming. Others note the NGB chief told Congress that the reprogramming would have no adverse immediate impact on readiness. That’s due to the lag between ordering a piece of equipment and its actual delivery to a unit.
At the same time, the COVID-19 outbreak has overshadowed the issue, although NGAUS continues to discuss it with lawmakers when time allows.
“It puts us in a very tough spot,” Hadley said. “I think this will likely be a multiyear problem.”
The author can be reached at 202-408-5885 or [email protected].
Below are the top five planned Army and Air National Guard purchases with funds from the fiscal 2019 National Guard and Reserve Equipment Account.
Army National Guard
$136,152,016 Maintenance support devices
$30,360,000 All-terrain cranes (50-ton Heavy)
$24,750,000 External rescue hoists for UH-60M Black Hawks
$24,077,718 M984A4 HEMTT wrecker
$21,000,000 Handheld radios
Air National Guard
$41,525,000 Defensive systems for mobility aircraft
$41,191,000 Avionics upgrades for fighter aircraft
$39,450,000 ISR communications, avionics, defensive systems & operations enablers upgrades
$37,500,000 Space operations & training equipment
$26,321,620 Defensive systems upgrades for fighter aircraft