New Roles for America's Weekend Warriors
Army aims to emulate Air Force in ending a feud with its reserve forces that dates to the 1700s.
ANDREWS AIR FORCE BASE, MD.
On most days, Bill Rhea flies planes for a major airline, hopping from city to city around the United States. But this month he'll don a G-suit, slide into the cockpit of an F-16 fighter, and soar into the skies over Iraq - where he'll help enforce the no-fly zone set up by the victors of the 1991 Gulf War.
Major Rhea is part of the D.C. Air National Guard, one of 1,100 units of part-time fliers and technicians across the US, without whom the Air Force would likely be grounded.
Working side-by-side, air guards and the active-duty Air Force have created one of the major successes of post-cold-war military restructuring - staying battle ready, even as overall active ranks have shrunk from 2.3 million to 1.4 million.
"We are a major part of getting the job done," says Rhea after a recent training flight. "So it's a necessity that we get along with the active guys."
But the Air Force's efforts stand in stark contrast to those of the Army, which has sunk deeper into a long-raging feud over resources and responsibilities with the Army National Guard.
Now, under pressure from Defense Secretary William Cohen, the Army is seeking to mend the breach and has been consulting with the Air Force. Experts say it should learn from its sister service before tensions with its 366,000 citizen-soldiers erode cohesion of America's land forces.
State-based Air National Guard units play a major role in the nation's defense. They control almost half of the Air Force's transport and refueling aircraft and fully a third of its combat planes.
They also respond to domestic disasters on orders of their governors. They man the nation's air defenses. They run most of the military's air-traffic-control system.
And in the event of war, this role continues. The Air Force's war-fighting requirement of 20 tactical fighter wings - about 1,400 aircraft - includes six wings from its Guard units.
In sharp contrast, the Army's plans for a war force of 10 combat divisions don't include any reserve troops.
What many see as second-class treatment for Army reserves has created great enmity between the two groups. "The Army has suffered from a destructive disunity," warned a congressionally appointed panel of experts recently. "This rift serves neither the Army nor the country well."
The tensions are rooted in a dispute, which began after the War of Independence over whether the US should have a standing army or remain a nation of citizen-militias. The frictions have now been driven to unprecedented levels by the defense-spending squeeze.
Give us a chance, the Guard says
Many Army commanders believe the Guard should be shorn of combat duties and radically downsized. The savings, they say, should go to the 495,000-strong active force to make up for personnel and funding cuts.
Army Guard leaders respond that with adequate resources and training, their troops could perform many of the regular Army's duties at one-quarter the cost. They point to the high-level performances of Air Force and Marine part-timers in the Gulf War, when the Army refused to deploy its Guard combat troops.
And as Army leaders look to integrate the reservists, the Air Force provides a kind of model. Asserts Brig. Gen. Paul Pocmara, the D.C. Air National Guard's commander: "Without [the regular Air Force] embracing us as they do, we would not be as good as we are."
The Air Force's decision to integrate closely with its part-timers came after congressional pressure ended bickering that followed their founding in 1947. The policy took on added importance as the Air Force wrestled with tradeoffs required by the post-cold-war drawdown.
It settled on sacrificing active-duty slots and using some of the savings to ensure that Guard units - which are far cheaper to maintain - receive sufficient training to keep them proficient.
Training together, fighting together
The Air Force also provides the latest equipment to the reservists, some of whom receive aircraft straight from the factory. The Army gives the Army Guard mostly used equipment, much of it in poor shape.
Air Guard units also routinely train and war-game with active units, spending as much as one week a month on training missions. Army reservists, however, seldom participate with regular troops in large-scale exercises and train only one weekend a month and two weeks in the summer.
Furthermore, the Air Force requires its part-timers to meet the same rigorous performance standards and take the same tests as full-timers.
The Air Force's active-duty commanders are also held accountable for the failings and achievements of their Guard units, giving them an incentive to work closely.
"You can do amazing things with citizen-soldiers," says Gen. Donald Shepperd, the Pentagon-based Air National Guard director. "But you have to give them good equipment and have the training days to go with it."
Some experts say Army leaders could do more to lower tensions with their reserve counterparts by changing the way they formulate the Army Guard's annual budget. The regular Army includes only partial funding for the Guard in its spending plans, knowing that the Army Guard's enormous political clout ensures that Congress will add the rest.
Instead, Army commanders should emulate the Air Force by working closely with their Guard counterparts on developing their budget, these experts say.
"The [Army] Guard feels like second-class military participants," says Dan Smith, a former Army lieutenant-colonel, an analyst with Center for Defense Information, a Washington-based think tank. "If the Army would take a firm budget and discuss it with the Guard leaders, it would contribute to the sense of total force."
One of the Army's first efforts to integrate its reserves is to create two new divisional headquarters of active-duty officers. They will oversee the training of six new Guard brigades designed for more rapid deployment in wartime.