ABOARD A C-40 MILITARY TRANSPORT JET—The Pentagon is considering changing the way the D.C. National Guard is activated, following a string of recent incidents that highlight the city’s lack of autonomy in emergencies.
“What they’re trying to do is to take a look at it today and make sure that all the decision-making processes make sense in how the requests come through,” National Guard Chief Gen. Daniel Hokanson told Military Times in an exclusive interview during a trip to Arkansas on Monday.
It’s one aspect of a broader analysis that Air Force Maj. Gen. Sherri McCandless, commanding general of the D.C. Guard, is leading to chart the organization’s future, Hokanson said.
Because D.C. lacks statehood, its mayor doesn’t have the same legal leeway that a governor does to activate the local Guard. Instead, federal law dictates that the president, not the mayor, is the top civilian in charge of the District’s guardsmen.
When D.C.’s mayor asks to use those airmen and soldiers for local support under state active duty orders, the request must go through the Army secretary and then to the defense secretary for approval. If officials want to pursue a more fundamental shift, he added, it may need Congress to sign off.
Army Secretary Christine Wormuth is “very involved” in discussions about potentially updating the process, Hokanson said.
In considering a new way of calling up the D.C. Guard, Hokanson stressed that the military wants to make the right move rather than a hasty one.
“I’d like to say it’s going to be shorter-term, in the next six months, but it could go on longer than that depending on how much has to be changed,” he said of a potential decision.
A spokesperson for Wormuth declined to comment on the record Tuesday. The D.C. National Guard referred questions to the Office of the Secretary of Defense. Washington Mayor Muriel Bowser’s office did not answer an email seeking comment.
“The hallmark of our military professionalism has always been the drive for constant assessment and improvement,” a Pentagon spokesperson said Tuesday. “As a learning organization, DoD continues to review lessons learned from responding to requests for support in D.C. and the broader National Capital Region, and how to improve DoD’s response to such requests in the future. In this context, the Department is reviewing how the D.C. National Guard is employed.”
Letting the top politician in the District make the call on whether to bring in local troops would require congressional intervention. Choosing a different set of military offices to route a request through, such as the Air Force District of Washington headquarters, may not.
In July, House lawmakers approved a measure from D.C. Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton that would extend Guard command authority to the District’s chief executive. The amendment to the annual defense policy bill passed 218-209 but could be scrapped in the final compromise version of the bill, as it was last year.
The unorthodox relationship between the Pentagon, the D.C. government and the 2,700 or so soldiers and airmen under its control has become a point of contention in recent years.
The deadly riot at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, threw that tension into stark relief.
Hundreds of former President Donald Trump’s supporters breached the Capitol building, hoping to stop Congress from certifying the results of the 2020 U.S. presidential election that Trump lost.
Hours after the melee began, killing five people, National Guard troops were eventually allowed to secure Capitol Hill. What delayed the D.C. Guard’s response is now a key focus of a congressional panel investigating the circumstances surrounding the riot.
Most recently, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin on Aug. 5 denied Bowser’s plea for 150 Guardsmen to indefinitely support the District as it tries to provide humanitarian support for thousands of undocumented migrants that Texas and Arizona’s governors have bussed to the capital from the U.S.-Mexico border.
“We have determined providing this support would negatively impact the readiness of the DCNG and have negative effects on the organization and members. We understand SAMU First Response has received grant funding through FEMA’s Emergency Food and Shelter Program, and has indicated that sufficient EFSP funds exist at this point to provide migrant assistance,” the Pentagon said in a statement.
Hokanson, who is not part of the chain of command that approves the city’s Guard deployments, noted that the D.C. Guard has a particularly busy training schedule because of the Washington region’s extra security needs.
District officials work closely with the Army secretary to decide whether it’s a good time or a worthwhile mission to take troops away from those regular duties, Hokanson said.
“The reason the Guard exists is to fight our nation’s wars,” the Army four-star said. “At the end of the day, we have to be prepared and ready to do that.”
Rachel Cohen is the editor of Air Force Times. She joined the publication as its senior reporter in March 2021. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Frederick News-Post (Md.), Air and Space Forces Magazine, Inside Defense, Inside Health Policy and elsewhere.