On Guard: A Seventh Member for the Joint Chiefs?

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The National Guard's war plan for getting a Joint Chiefs' seat (click to enlarge)

The National Guard has been fighting for years to get one of its own as a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (the nation’s senior council of military officers currently consists of the chiefs of staff of the Army and Air Force, the chief of naval operations, the Marine commandant, and a vice chairman and chairman from any service — a total of six.)

The National Guard Association of the United States — yes, they have their own trade group — has just declared that 52 senators now support the notion. The House has already voted in favor of the idea. All that’s needed is full Senate approval and President Obama’s signature. Check out the Guard’s self-described Empowerment package here.

Is this a good idea?

The Guard and Reserves have always felt that many of their active-duty counterparts view them as second-rate. That view may have had merit before 9/11, when reserve forces were simply sitting on the sidelines, playing war games one weekend a month and two weeks a year. They constituted the nation’s strategic reserve.

But since 9/11, they’ve essentially become part of the active force, deploying regularly to Afghanistan and Iraq. They’re no longer back-benchers, but fully in the fight. The bad news is that the nation no longer has a strategic reserve.

But this is not about fighting wars. It’s about money. The Joint Chiefs don’t plan or conduct wars; they’re responsible for training the troops, and buying the weapons that fight wars, under Title 10 of the U.S. Code (which is why Army general Tommy Franks indecorously called them “Title 10 mother-[deleteds].”

Not everyone’s on board with the plan. Army General Martin Dempsey, who will succeed Adm. Mike Mullen as chairman of the Joint Chiefs next month, discussed adding a Guard general to the Joint Chiefs at his confirmation hearing in July. “I just don’t know what that would do to the relationship, if we had now two four-stars overseeing the same force, because we aspire to be one force,” Dempsey delicately explained. Besides, the National Guard doesn’t have a budget like the services do. “If it weren’t for the budget, no one would even pay attention to me…If we have a National Guard four-star on the Joint Chiefs, he’s not accountable, because he doesn’t have anything with which to deliver capability.”

But NGAUS — surprise! — disagrees:

[Retired Tennessee Guard major general, and NGAUS president, Gus] Hargett said Pentagon officials are chilly to the notion of adding another seat to the Joint Chiefs, but they need not be.

“This legislation doesn’t add a second general to oversee the Army or the Air Force and it doesn’t alter existing lines of authority or communication,” he said. “It simply ensures the Guard has a voice in final decisions, while also ensuring the nation’s civilian leaders have easy access to the Guard’s homeland security expertise in a crisis.”

Of course, you could also argue that as the reserves have become more like the active-duty force, their need for a seat on the Joint Chiefs actually has declined, at least in recent years. But don’t suggest that to Guard advocates.

“The Guard needs real representation at the highest levels of the Pentagon,” Hargett says, “especially now as senior leaders must find ways to reduce defense spending without reducing defense capabilities.”

Ouch. None of the senior leaders I’ve heard — especially in private — think the coming cuts in defense spending can be made “without reducing defense capabilities.” The challenge is going to be trimming future missions to fit into tighter future defense budgets. Don’t think denying that inevitable outcome is something the Joint Chiefs — even if joined by a seventh member representing the Guard — will be able to change.