Tuesday, February 13, 2007

National Guard Equipment Shortages

The old adage about "doing more with less" has a corollary. The corollary is that at some point, when you've been given too little, you have no choice but to do less.

Today this corollary applies to the equipment shortages being experienced by our National Guard units. In the State of Nebraska alone, there currently exists an $80 million shortage of equipment. Nationwide, the National Guard Bureau estimates the total equipment shortfalls at $21 billion.

At the end of January, U.S. Sen. Ben Nelson sent a letter to Secretary of Defense Robert Gates demanding this problem be addressed and that the Fiscal Year 2008 budget include full funding for all equipment needs.

The letter noted equipment shortages for the Nebraska National Guard including everything from night vision goggles to tractor trailers. Correspondence I received from Sen. Nelson's office listed deficits including generators, flood lights, radios, night vision goggles, tents, welders, fire fighting and medical equipment, machine guns, grenade launchers, mortars, pistols, rifles, fork lifts, trucks, vans, trailers and complete semi trailer trucks.

These shortages have consequences for the training readiness of individual soldiers, the operational readiness of entire units, and the ability to deploy our Guard units for domestic contingencies or as a strategic reserve in armed conflict.

National Guard and Reserve units are typically short of equipment, even in peacetime, but always make due even though they're somewhat underequipped. It's not usually a readiness limiting scenario.

To address this, in theory, there is a mythical storehouse of equipment somewhere in the military supply system ready to fully equip a unit when it gets mobilized. To some degree that happens. But we've learned the limits of that system since mobilizing for the war on terror.
Because enough equipment does not exist within the military supply system to fully outfit each and every unit when mobilized, units rely on a system of "cross leveling" or "cross decking" to fulfill the needs of deploying units. Equipment is transferred from non-deploying to deploying units. This took place at the onset of the war and still occurs to some degree. This leaves the non-deploying units which are already short on equipment, even more so.

The problem is exacerbated under the process by which much of the equipment is then left in theatre under the plan for Theatre Provided Equipment. This is no more than leaving an entire unit's gear in the combat zone for a new unit to fall in on.

So, our National Guard units which were already underequipped were then further depleted by deploying units, who left the equipment in the combat zone, and have since then had very little, if any, of that equipment replaced. According to a Government Accountability Office report from last March, only three plans for replacement of National Guard equipment had been approved by the Defense Department with 33 others in various stages of approval. And even after approval, the estimates are two to three years before all the replacements become available.

This scenario generates an incredible disservice to those of whom we are asking to do more and more of the fighting. Without the equipment for training, drill weekends and annual trainings become a series of lectures about how to run a convoy rather than going out and conducting one. They become lectures on employing and firing heavy guns instead of live fire exercises. Radio operators are forced to read about their radios rather than actually use them. This shortage of equipment for training limits or denies their ability to hone the essential skills to "shoot, move, and communicate" which keep them alive in combat.

A December 2006 report from the Congressional Research Service (CRS) notes this impact on small unit readiness among our National Guard and Reserve forces. The CRS report also explains the implications for larger units and it addresses the problems equipment shortcomings have for the unique role of the National Guard in handling disaster and security situations here at home.

In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, National Guard units activated for rescue and recovery operations experienced shortages of equipment necessary to conduct those operations. Many units reported a lack of vehicles to transport personnel to the Gulf area and others had so many vehicles in various stages of disrepair from a lack of available replacement parts that their arrivals were delayed because of mechanical issues. Other reports address Guard units which could not communicate amongst themselves or with other units because of shortfalls in communication equipment.

This is a scenario which could easily be replayed anytime, anywhere in the U.S. should we suffer another large natural disaster or terrorist attack.

As of today, funding for reset (replacement equipment) has been requested, but much of it is either held up in some sort of bureaucratically influenced, red tape request for details, or has simply not been approved or allocated.

With concerns about future terrorist attacks, illegal immigration, natural disasters, and deployments in normal rotations or as a strategic reserve in support of the war on terror, the current equipment readiness state of our National Guard units is absolutely unacceptable. Sen. Nelson is right in demanding immediate action and full funding to correct the situation.

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