Rebirth of the Divisions
To better prepare for future fights, Army Guard leaders are reforming the force to look more like the Guard of a century ago.
Under the National Guard’s division alignment plans, the current eight division headquarters are adopting training-oversight relationships with other units to include brigade combat teams, aviation brigades, sustainment brigades and other support elements that would be part of a more traditional division structure.
The goal, officials say, is to build out enough full Guard divisions to effectively give the Army 18 true, combat-ready divisions.
Lt. Gen. Jon A. Jensen, the director of the Army Guard, says the changes are being driven by the National Defense Strategy and the need to prepare for great power competition, which could include more large-scale combat than what was seen during the fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Such a shift means the Army is focusing on the division as the key combat formation, instead of the brigade combat team.
Currently, Guard divisions are divisions in name only. “Divisions, as we refer to them [now], are really division headquarters, not division formations,” Jensen says.
The units typically include about 300 soldiers. They have deployed regularly in recent years to support overseas and stability operations, to include Operation Spartan Shield, which covers all U.S. Army forces across the U.S. Central Command area of responsibility.
Guard division headquarters have commanded the Spartan Shield mission since 2016. The headquarters of the 42nd Infantry Division from New York has the responsibility now. The headquarters of the 36th Infantry Division from Texas mobilized recently to take the mission next.
Jensen says reforming the Guard to more look like its active counterparts — with intact divisions of approximately 20,000 soldiers each — is important not just for future fights, but also for ongoing modernization efforts.
“We need to look and operate like the active Army,” Jensen says. “We need to make sure that as the Army moves forward, we do as well.“The Army Guard is strongest when we look like the Army,” he adds.
“The Army Guard is strongest when we are moving along with the Army as a full partner. When we get left behind — either by our own inactivity or by the Army moving forward without us, that’s when we’re at risk. We’re at risk to force structure, we’re at risk to relevancy and we’re at risk at home in our ability to conduct our domestic missions.”
The Guard’s division headquarters are in California, Indiana, Kansas, Minnesota, New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Texas.
Divisions, as we refer to them [now], are really division headquarters, not division formations.
—Lt. Gen. Jon A. Jensen, the director of the Army National Guard
A COMPLETE GUARD DIVISION has not deployed into combat since Harry Truman was president, when California’s 40th Infantry Division and Oklahoma’s 45th Infantry Division were sent to fight in Korea.
But Guard divisions have a distinguished combat history.
The Army created 18 Guard divisions from state regiments in 1917 as it prepared to enter World War I. All of them deployed to Europe; three were among the first five U.S. Army divisions to reach the front lines. And many won the respect of their enemy. Six of the eight U.S. divisions rated “superior” or “excellent” by the German General Staff were Guard divisions.
During World War II, 19 Guard divisions saw action, including the first five full divisions to enter the fight. They distinguished themselves with storied fighting across Pacific jungle islands, onto the beaches of Normandy and amid the push to Germany to end the war.
Guard divisions also likely would have been critical to turning back a Soviet invasion of Western Europe had the Cold War turned hot.
Guard leaders, including the chief of the National Guard Bureau, Gen. Daniel R. Hokanson, often reference the accomplishments of past Guard units when discussing the ongoing transformation of the force.
“Like those who have served before us, we must be prepared to fight and win our nation’s wars,” Hokanson said during NGAUS virtual conference late last month. Hokanson announced the division alignment while serving as the director of the Army Guard last year.
Reconstituting the Guard divisions will better prepare the force for potential large-scale operations like those in World War I, World War II and Korea, he said. It also provides an opportunity to improve readiness and talent management across the entire Guard, not just in states that house one of the eight current Guard divisions.
“Through coordination between adjutants general and division commanders, our soldiers will have opportunities for key leader development positions previously hampered by geography,” Hokanson said.
The opportunities will work both ways. Soldiers previously limited by opportunities in their own state will be available to serve at the division level. And divisions will welcome a larger pool of candidates for their top positions.
Jensen says the alignment provides the opportunity to develop a more diverse cast of Guard leaders and provide young leaders more opportunities to build careers that could eventually lead to senior positions at the top of the Guard.
“The opportunity to serve at a division level, I think it can change your career,” says Jensen, who had four assignments in the 34th Infantry Division, culminating as the division commander.
Such assignments can increase a soldier’s understand of the Army and complex battlespace, he says. “It’s an opportunity for the 54 to come together and really contribute to each other’s success.”
Like those who have served before us, we must be prepared to fight and win our nation's wars.
—Gen. Daniel R. Hokanson, the chief of the National Guard Bureau
SOME GUARD DIVISIONS already have formed the ties that will be the basis of the ongoing alignment.
The Virginia-based 29th Infantry Division has training and readiness oversight with the 53rd Infantry Brigade Combat Team from Florida and Alabama, the 30th Armored Brigade Combat Team from North Carolina and West Virginia, the 29th Combat Aviation Brigade from Maryland and Virginia, the 226th Maneuver Enhancement Brigade from Alabama, the 113th Sustainment Brigade from North Carolina and the 142nd Fires Brigade from Arkansas.
The units greatly expand the footprint of a division that has historically been comprised largely of units from Maryland and Virginia, but they are in keeping with the plan to align brigades with divisions in their general regions of the country.
Jensen issued instructions for the alignment as one of his first actions as Army Guard director. He said building training relationships and developing the necessary relationships between leaders in all states were necessary first steps before the Army Guard can field a fully deployable, combat-ready division force.
He said aligning for training was the first step in a process that would likely see the first combat-ready Guard division formations in decades be fully operational in 2024.
Alignment will only be a success if the concept is embraced by senior leaders — including both adjutants general and division commanders, Jensen says.
But the new alignment will not change the roles of either group, Jensen stresses.
“The adjutant general is responsible for manning, equipping and training for all forces in their state,” he says. “This doesn’t take away any authority or responsibility of the TAG.”
The division commanders will be working to support the adjutants general of all 54 states, territories and the District of Columbia, Jensen says. “They’re working to support the TAG, not the other way around.”
A former adjutant general of Minnesota and former commander of the 34th Infantry Division, Jensen says fully developed divisions will make the Guard a better com-bat reserve.“
We need to look and operate like the Army,” he says. Doing so ensures that the Guard is not only an interchangeable combat reserve, but also a part of modernization efforts and is included in new doctrine, like multidomain operations.
Multidomain operations against China and Russia are the focus of Army leaders and a driving force behind the push for combat-ready Guard divisions.
Unlike the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, in much brigade combat teams were the primary fighting force, multidomain operations require a higher level of complexity and command that positions the division as the key element.
It involves navigating several combat domains simultaneously, including land, air, sea, cyber and space. And requires more specialized skillsets and units than those typically found at the brigade level.
The focus on a higher echelon is prompting a return, of sorts, for the Army Guard, Jensen says.
“Prior to 9/11 we were a division-centric Army. We had division formations, we had brigades assigned to divisions. We were a division-centric organization, just like the larger Army,” he says. “But we became a much more focused, brigade-centric organization.”
Organizing the force more like the active component will allow Army officials to use Guard and active divisions interchangeably, Jensen says. Ultimately, Guard divisions could be deployed with active brigades assigned to them, or vice versa.
“After nearly two decades of counter-insurgency operations, the division has been reborn as the decisive echelon,” Maj. Gen. John M. Epperly said on Oct. 3, as he left command of Virginia’s 29th Infantry Division.
“Reforming the division by realigning the brigades was no easy task, but today it impacts everything from how we select our leaders to how we train, equip and fight,” he said. “By creating a full division of cohesive brigades, we have created a far more lethal and survivable unit for the modern battlefield.”
Drew Brooks can be reached at 202-408-5885 or [email protected].