The power struggle between US Army, National Guard

A fight between the active-duty Army and the National Guard has been simmering for a year now, ostensibly over whether the full-timers should be able to commandeer a fleet of attack helicopters from the Guard now that the U.S. ground war is over in Iraq and nearing an end in Afghanistan. The N.C. National Guard currently has a battalion of Apaches, as these helicopters are known, and the Army would switch them out for Blackhawk utility aircraft if Congress lets its plan go forward.

Helicopters are largely just symbols in this fight, though. Much dearer concerns about identity, influence and budgetary investment are at stake. The National Guard isn’t going to back down from its strong position as part of the country’s front line, but it will succeed only if it’s willing to absorb a few setbacks along the way.

Maj. Gen. Michael McGuire, commander of Arizona’s National Guard, escalated things with an article he published in September. “Many of America’s Founding Fathers … believed the greatest threat to liberty was a large standing army,” McGuire wrote. In McGuire’s telling, the founders permitted state militias, now called the National Guard, to check the Army’s power because “it helped limit the blunders of a large centralized government by dispersing power to citizens through their state governments.”

McGuire thinks budget investment should tilt toward the Guard because the active-duty Army will be retrenching during peacetime . Not only would the Guard keep its attack helicopters, it would take on much of the active-duty Army’s equipment, personnel, missions and budget.

But McGuire is going to find it especially hard to connect with this argument. Americans won’t go along with claims that imply that our Army is “the greatest threat to liberty.” The National Guard is better off taking a more persuasive approach even though it means accepting some tough tradeoffs.

Take it from Grier Martin. Most know Martin as a local representative in the General Assembly, but he also has the distinction of sitting on a board that advises the Secretary of Defense about National Guard and Reserve policy issues. This body is one of the Guard’s best friends within the Pentagon. Despite that deep support, Martin firmly rejects McGuire’s approach.

“We don’t need to dilute the argument with ideas that aren’t based in reality,” Martin told me. “Clearly, it’s more financially prudent to keep a strong combat capability in the Reserve Component. That’s the right argument.”

Indeed. The National Guard should emphasize that it’s most affordable within the circumstances our country is likely to use the military. McGuire’s counterparts from California and Utah have staked this position out well. They contend that “relying on part-time Guard troops instead of a large standing army that exceeds our needs could save billions.”

Note that this is a two-part idea that accounts for cost within the context of our needs.

Grier Martin and his colleagues have backed up the Guard with data on this point. The Reserve Forces Policy Board determined in a study published in February that “the Reserve Components (which include the National Guard) provide an extremely high level of military capability for a comparatively small portion of the DoD budget.” The board drew this conclusion after its own research found that National Guard and Reserve forces cost the Pentagon about $66,000 per person each year relative to a $222,000 tab for each active-duty service member.

Congress and the White House can take advantage of this efficiency, though, only by scaling back our ground forces’ operations. The Guard’s efficiency will disappear if we use it as extensively as the active-duty Army. Indeed, its cost advantage is inherently tied to a strategy that uses ground forces only to defend our vital interests rather than in a policing function around the world.

U.S. strategy is heading in this direction. The Pentagon decided that our ground forces should not be sized to fight “large-scale, prolonged stability operations” like we did in Iraq and Afghanistan. Americans today staunchly oppose putting boots on the ground in Syria, Iraq or Ukraine. And our budget is on a path that continues to trim the active-duty Army’s size.

Our National Guard truly is the most affordable force within the circumstances our country is likely to use the military, but that opportunity easily can be lost if the Guard presses too hard.

Matthew Leatherman of Raleigh is a freelance contributor on state-level military affairs.