National Guard Response to Storm Builds Political Capital

Posted October 31, 2012 at 12:00am

The National Guard has more than 10,000 troops from as far away as Alaska and California aiding Hurricane Sandy relief efforts in 13 states along the Eastern Seaboard — a quickly organized and sizable force that will likely only fuel lawmakers’ efforts to protect these state-run units from any cost-saving Pentagon proposals targeting their personnel and equipment.

The Army and Air Guard have long enjoyed widespread, bipartisan support on Capitol Hill, with lawmakers adding billions to the defense budget over the past decade to buy new, more modern equipment for the Guard as the military relied more heavily on these forces for regular deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan.

Meanwhile, their response to stateside emergencies such as Hurricane Katrina, which devastated the Gulf Coast in 2005, has only helped boost the National Guard’s support on the Hill, making funding for these units off limits for cuts in the eyes of many key lawmakers.

The Air Force learned that lesson the hard way this year, with its fiscal 2013 proposal to divest itself of personnel and aircraft effectively dead on arrival on Capitol Hill.

Lawmakers in both chambers argued that the cuts disproportionately affected Air National Guard and Reserve units. In terms of aircraft, the Air Guard would have lost three times more planes than the active-duty Air Force.

The House-passed defense appropriations (HR 5856) and authorization (HR 4310) bills, as well as companion measures approved by the Senate Armed Services and Appropriations committees, would put the brakes on the Air Force’s proposal.

The Senate Armed Services Committee’s version of the defense authorization measure (S 3254), which the Senate could consider during the upcoming lame-duck session, also would create an eight-member commission to study the appropriate makeup of the Air Force, including Guard and Reserve requirements for manpower and equipment.

The Guard’s response to Sandy has largely been a ground mission, with Humvees and several thousand high-water vehicles, for instance, supporting civil authorities along the East Coast. Other critical National Guard equipment used in the response includes more than 3,500 generators and 43 water purification units.

But Guard aircraft have also been tapped for the response, including nearly 200 helicopters as well as several C-130 and C-17 cargo planes. Indeed, five C-130s from California and Nevada and two C-17s from Alaska and New York have joined the nine C-130s from North Carolina’s National Guard at the Charlotte Douglas International Airport to assist missions along the East Coast, according to the North Carolina National Guard.

As part of the Air Force’s plan to stand down aircraft it says it no longer needs, the service would have retired 65 of its oldest C-130s, which would mostly have come from the Air National Guard and Reserve.

The response to Hurricane Sandy “certainly underscores the need for us to be that unique force that we are,” Maj. Gen. Frank Vavala, Delaware’s top Guard officer and a vocal critic of the Air Force’s cost-saving plan, said Wednesday.

Vavala, who spent Tuesday surveying storm damage in his own state, said his units were prepared to send equipment and personnel to other, harder-hit states — such as a request, which was ultimately canceled, for air ambulances for the rescue effort in New Jersey. To assist in Delaware, a Pennsylvania unit had been on standby if the Guard had needed more personnel and vehicles for evacuations, Vavala said.

The storm response, meanwhile, could also help the Reserve Forces Policy Board, a Pentagon advisory committee, sell Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta and members of Congress on its proposal to create a contingency fund that would set aside $100 million annually to pay for the National Guard’s response to emergencies within the United States.

Former Democratic Rep. Gene Taylor of Mississippi, a member of the policy board, said the board briefed Panetta on the proposal in September and encouraged him to include it in his fiscal 2014 budget request. A similar fund existed more than two decades ago, when Panetta was chairman of the House Budget Committee.

“I would hope we would also pursue this legislatively. It just makes sense,” said Taylor, a longtime Guard booster whose district was devastated by Katrina. “If at the end of the year, by some strange blessing from God, there has been no disaster, it just goes back to the Treasury.”

According to the board’s minutes from the meeting, Panetta voiced support for the proposal. “We ought to build that back in” to the budget, he said.