With the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan over, the National Guard is facing a period of transition. The force had largely been defined by frequent overseas deployments over the past two decades, but along with the active-duty component, the current national security environment will define how Guard troops will contribute.
Army Gen. Dan Hokanson, chief of the National Guard Bureau, often refers to his component as an “operational” or “strategic” reserve that primarily keeps its sights set on fighting abroad. But the National Guard has been increasingly called on for domestic missions in recent years, and experts are confident that trend will continue.
“The reason we have a National Guard is to fight in our nation’s wars,” Hokanson told Military Times on Jan. 26, as he traveled back to Washington, D.C. from Camp Grayling, Michigan, where Guard troops were taking part in an annual Arctic exercise. “With the manning, training and equipping that we do to fight wars, that allows us to do virtually anything. And as a result, we really have to be ready, we have to build readiness all the time for protection. And in doing that we prepare ourselves for anything that could happen in the United States.”
The COVID-19 pandemic and the civil unrest of 2020 and 2021 brought that into stark relief for the Guard.
Beyond perennial activations to respond to hurricanes, floods and wild fires, Guardsmen spent much of those two years either coming face-to-face with their fellow Americans protesting police brutality, or in a pandemic relief role, passing out supplies, manning public testing centers and eventually, administering those first doses of vaccine.
Experts expect that the Guard will be called on for even more of those domestic missions in the near future.
“Climate change means a much more pronounced [or] an ever-increasing role in disaster relief,” Carrie Lee, chair of the national security and strategy department at the Army War College, said during a Jan. 25 symposium on the all-volunteer force in Annapolis, Maryland. “Right now, we see the huge demands on the National Guard in terms of time and training and funding for a dual mission over the last 20 years, preparing for operational combat in Iraq and Afghanistan, while also being asked to train and combat forest fires in California, and flooding. ... So, this is only going to become increasingly exacerbated for for the National Guard and it’s a real concern.”
There is also the threat of additional civil unrest.
“The National Guard is going to be more and more stressed by domestic disasters, including domestic terrorism,” Jack Goldstone, a public policy professor at George Mason University, added. “The National Guard and Coast Guard probably need to be seen not just as an auxiliary and reserve but as an active component of dealing with what’s going to be an increasing number of climate emergencies and peacekeeping emergencies here.”
At the same time, Hokanson has been focusing on increasing training opportunities and reconfiguring Guard units to more easily integrate with the Army.
“This will keep us seamlessly interoperable with the Army, make rotations more predictable and give our Guardsmen more leadership opportunities,” Hokanson said. “Most of all, it will ensure we are ready whenever our nation calls.”
That call is likely to include deployments to Europe, as the U.S. continues to modify its presence in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
The U.S. mobilized roughly 20,000 troops to Germany, the Baltic countries, Poland, Romania and more early last year, and those rotations have largely continued in 2023. At the same time, a new permanent training command will continuously bring in Ukrainian troops to help improve their battlefield skill during the ongoing war.
The National Guard has been training with Ukrainians since 2015, having been in Ukraine before the outbreak of the war before moving to Germany to continue training.
“Because it’s critically important that we continue that work that we started with 10 years ago, to help them be able to defend their borders and their sovereignty,” Hokanson said.
The same goes for other countries in Eastern Europe, where National Guard troops are paired up with countries by state.
“We train them up [on] things we’ve learned [and] we learned from them as well ... about their environment and how they operate there,” Hokanson added. “And I think it makes both of our countries and our military a lot better. Because we see a different perspective, we work together, and they’re proud of being interoperable. Because it’s [involving] NATO allies, we never know the day we may be fighting side by side, and all they are doing now — the coordination and training — will really pay off.”
Meghann Myers is the Pentagon bureau chief at Military Times. She covers operations, policy, personnel, leadership and other issues affecting service members.