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Iraq War Drains Guard of Equipment
Atlanta Journal Constitution  |  March 08, 2006
Washington - The war in Iraq has badly depleted the National Guard's domestic store of vehicles, weapons and communications gear, officials with the service say, leaving units with one-third of the equipment needed to meet requirements for homeland security, its primary mission.

From tanks and radios to Humvees and rifles, equipment taken to Iraq by National Guard units is being worn out, blown up, lent to U.S. forces rotating into Iraq or given away to newly mustered Iraqi units, said Maj. Frank Holder, a special projects officer for logistics with the National Guard.

With the 2006 hurricane season just four months away, the Guard is lean on equipment that might be needed in the aftermath of a major storm, analysts say.

"Right now the Guard's equipment stocks are depleted," said Christine Wormuth, a senior fellow with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank that specializes in foreign policy. "That's going to have an impact on their ability to do domestic relief missions."

But Guard officials say the equipment deficit has not hindered domestic operations or training.

Guard units have been able to share gear from state to state for deployments to Iraq and domestic emergencies, such as Hurricane Katrina, Holder said.

"We haven't missed the bell yet," Holder said. "Every time we've been asked to respond, we have."

But analysts have voiced concern that the drawdown in equipment could leave the country vulnerable, especially in the event of multiple disasters calling for response by the National Guard.

The issue is expected to be addressed today when the Commission on the National Guard and Reserves holds the first in a series of hearings to assess the needs of the forces as they transform from a strategic standby force to an operational arm of a military at war.

"It's a high-priority issue, it's one that's very much on the front burner," said Arnold Punaro, a retired Marine Corps major general serving as chairman of the commission.

"As good as the people are, if they don't have the right equipment and they don't have it when they need it, they won't be as successful as they could be."

Congress set up the 13-member commission last year and charged the panel with examining issues facing the National Guard and reserves. The final report and recommendations are due by March 2007. House and Senate armed service committee members are scheduled to testify today before the commission, which will hear from Pentagon officials on Thursday.

The National Guard traditionally has performed domestic functions such as disaster relief and responding to civil disturbances. Before the Iraq war, Guard units averaged about 75 percent of the equipment required to fulfill their training and defense missions, said Wormuth, the Washington analyst.

National Guard units have played a major role in Iraq, however, where they made up half of all combat forces at one point last year, said Holder, the National Guard major. Guard units currently make up about 23 percent of the roughly 150,000 U.S. forces in Iraq, he said.

Three years of fighting have taken their toll on equipment.

"It's war, and you lose equipment," Holder said. "It wears out, it gets blown up."

Apart from equipment that has been destroyed, much has been designated "stay-behind equipment," Holder said. When a Guard unit returns home, it often leaves equipment behind to be used by replacement forces rotating in.

"Right now the National Guard has $2.9 billion worth of equipment left in theater," Holder said. "It stays in theater and it helps the war effort."

If equipment is destroyed or given to Iraqi forces, the Pentagon's internal accounting procedures are designed to enable the Guard to recoup its losses.

The process, though, takes time.

"Today, here at home, I have less than 34 percent of the equipment I'm supposed to have," Lt. Gen. Steven Blum, chief of the National Guard bureau, told reporters recently.

Even that figure overstates the amount of equipment available to Guard units, Blum said, because it includes a category called "substitute items," which in many cases is gear that's outdated or in poor condition.

"We're running around in trucks we wouldn't give to the Iraqi army in some cases," Blum said. "They wouldn't accept them."

Congress has approved about $23 billion in transition funds for the National Guard over the next six years. Much of that money will go toward new equipment.

But that isn't enough, Blum said.

"That will not re-equip the Guard," he said. "It'll cost double that."

In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, about 50,000 National Guard troops deployed to New Orleans and elsewhere across the Gulf states region, performing 17,000 rescues and transporting 70,000 people out of the storm-ravaged region.

Wormuth said the Guard forces performed "heroically," but critics say the Guard should have moved more quickly to save lives and help avert the chaos that lingered in hard-hit areas for days.

Blum said the Guard was hampered by a lack of satellite telephone equipment needed for units to communicate with each other in areas where cellphone capacity had been knocked out or overwhelmed by emergency demand.

"Our best modern radios were in Iraq," he said.

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