Plans to “off-ramp” four Indiana National Guard units set to go to the Sinai Peninsula and Horn of Africa, and send active-duty units instead, are fueling fears about the future of the Guard and Reserve.
Army officials say the move, announced March 19, could save as much as $93 million in a year when the services face an $18 billion budget shortfall. But it is not part of a broader policy shift.
Advocates for the Guard and Reserve were deeply skeptical.
“The message that will be heard is, ‘Now you don't need us',” said John Goheen, communications director for the National Guard Association of the United States. “Great term: ‘off-ramped.' ”
After the 9/11 attacks, the reserve component became a highly trained and experienced operational force. According to the National Guard Bureau, 63 percent of National Guardsmen have deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan once and 37 percent have deployed multiple times.
“But now, budgets are getting tight,” said Arnold Punaro, chairman of the Reserve Forces Policy Board, referring to $43 billion in automatic, across-the-board cuts that kicked in March 1 and plans to cut $500 billion over the next 10 years. “This is what the Guard and Reserve have been worried about, after performing magnificently for more than 10 years in combat.”
A retired Marine Corps Reserve general, Punaro said he was speaking personally and not for the RFPB.
Army Vice Chief of Staff Gen. John Campbell told Army Times the Army will continue to make difficult cost-cutting moves for the active and reserve components and dismissed fears the reserve component's role in the Army's operational force would change, as “absolutely wrong.”
“That's absolutely ridiculous,” Campbell said. “We need the National Guard, we need the Reserve. We are a total Army.”
Campbell offered assurances that Army leadership is committed to the Total Force Policy it adopted in 2012, which integrates the reserve component as part of the operational force. However, he said, the Army plans to adjust how it uses the active and reserve components.
“We can't afford readiness that we're not going to use,” he said.
More active- and reserve-component units will be off-ramped amid the troop drawdown in Afghanistan, but the Army will try to give troops more than 180 days' notice, he said.
The Army's plans call for active- component units to be deployed in lieu of four Indiana National Guard units in Operation Enduring Freedom-Trans Sahara and the Multinational Force Observer Task Force Sinai.
In an attempt to find savings, and with little flexibility with troops deploying to Afghanistan, the Army examined operations in Kosovo, Turkey and Kuwait - and those in Sinai and Horn of Africa.
“So we have to make some tough choices,” he said, calling the off-ramping in Indiana a “perfect storm” because it marks the third off-ramping in the past few years for troops there and involves two missions - and he acknowledged the hardship it created for the troops involved.
The National Guard Bureau is considering this move an aberration. NGB spokeswoman Rose Richeson said the bureau expects the resolution of funding issues to result in a “return to the normal use of the reserve component,” but she warned the Guard needs predictable, rotational deployments to stay proficient.
“Our operational force will only remain operational if it is exercised and employed,” she said.
Guard officials in other states are anxious about what is happening in Indiana and what it may mean.
“I think, based on what we're seeing now, we're gonna see this more and more,” Maj. Gen. Frank Vavala, the Delaware Guard's adjutant general, told The News Journal. “A reduction in operations will erode readiness.”
There are subtler signs in Delaware of a lessened reliance on the Guard and Reserve, The News Journal reports. The Delaware Air National Guard's 166th Airlift Wing has two C-130 cargo planes and close to 40 airmen deployed at a base in Kuwait, from which they fly missions, including in and out of Afghanistan.
“They're telling me they're not doing a lot of flying - that a lot of the mission sets are being taken over by the active component,” Vavala said. “I mean, we're starting to see our services not needed. It's bothersome.”
According to the Indiana National Guard, this marks the third time since September 2010 that a scheduled mobilization has been canceled for these 950 soldiers.
Iraq and Afghanistan mobilizations were canceled within six months and two months, respectively.
When the latest cancellation was announced March 19, units had been set to leave May 16 and July 18.
“I've kind of had it, if you know what I mean,” Maj. Gen. Martin Umbarger, the Indiana Guard's adjutant general, told Army Times. “I would understand it if it's a year out, but three times, enough's enough. I can't go along with it.”
The Indiana National Guard said a quarter of the soldiers delayed school due to the pending deployment, and half of the soldiers will not have jobs to return to because they either quit them or deferred the decision to look for a new job.
“I personally do not think you save money on the backs of soldiers, their families and employers, particularly ones that have been told three times they're going to go,” Umbarger said. “I would find that savings somewhere else.”
Umbarger feared the move sends a message.
“Our feeling is the Army is doing this to save money, but it could be looked at as they're putting us back on the shelf and letting this great operational force atrophy,” he said. “I would hope it's not that.”
The canceled deployments have also rankled Sen. Joe Donnelly, D-Ind. In a letter to Army Secretary John McHugh and Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno, he urged them to reverse the “short-fuse” decision, which he called “disturbing” due to its impact on soldiers given mobilization orders in October.
“In addition to the American tax dollars invested in these units, our soldiers have enrolled their families in Tricare, left their civilian jobs, terminated rental agreements and suspended academic pursuits,” Donnelly said.
Donnelly questioned the Army's cost savings estimate, saying his office received three estimates related to the potential savings - one as low as $59 million - an indication, he said, that the Army “rushed into this decision and did not fully consider the impact.”
Donnelly said the Indiana Guard had spent $18 million to train the troops, who had put their civilian lives on hold in anticipation of the deployment and that their employers had made arrangements for their absences.
Staff writer Michelle Tan contributed to this report.