Gen. Frank Grass said the National Guard's ability to respond to natural disasters will be affected by budget cuts. ()
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The military's ongoing budget crunch will limit his force's ability to respond domestically to a "complex catastrophe," such as a massive earthquake or a large-scale nuclear accident, the four-star chief of the National Guard Bureau said.
Army National Guard Gen. Frank Grass said aviation units are seeing the biggest impact. Flying hours were recently cut back after the March 1 deadline that triggered the so-called sequestration of defense funding, imposing a roughly 13 percent cut across most military budgets in the next seven months.
While the Guard will maintain the capacity to respond to crises of "small to medium" size, such as superstorm Sandy that recently hit the New Jersey and New York coastline, a larger, more far-reaching emergency would reveal the Guard's limitations to respond to state governors' calls for assistance, Grass said.
"What concerns me more than anything else ever since I came into this job is a complex catastrophe," Grass, who sits on the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in an interview Friday. That could include a severe hurricane hitting a major U.S. metropolitan area, an earthquake that clocks above seven on the Richter scale, or a chemical, biological or nuclear incident.
Civilian furloughs will hit the Guard especially hard because they will affect the roughly 57,000 "military technicians" who hold full-time positions and wear military uniforms to work at local armories and provide essential maintenance and administrative support.
Those furloughs are slated to begin in April and force all Defense Department civilians to take unpaid leave for about 20 percent of the remaining fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30.
Those furloughs also will slow depot maintenance for aircraft. When combined with the cutbacks in training flight hours, the cuts will curtail the Guard and Air National Guard's capacity to deploy aviation units for domestic emergencies.
"We will begin to see a reduction in aircraft availability and pilot readiness," Grass said, adding that the combination of reduced material readiness along with pilots slipping below their optimal training status can create safety concerns. "I want to be very careful not to put anybody at risk," he said.
Ground-based vehicles and other equipment also may be in short supply later this year. As Guard units return from deployments overseas or domestically, their gear typically is sent to maintenance depots to be repaired, cleaned and restored to top condition. "That pipeline of new equipment coming back to the armory will begin to slow," Grass said.
The number of mobilized Guardsmen — now about 29,000 — likely will continue to fall as operations in Afghanistan wind down and as the services seek to avoid putting reservists on their payrolls at a time of increased budget pressures.
Yet Grass said he hopes the Guard will be able to maintain some of the operational role it has acquired over the past decade.
"The overseas number will continue to come down, which for all of us is probably a good thing. But we want to retain some of those overseas missions for our units to continue to keep that edge that they've created with 12 years of combat experience," Grass said. "So we are going to … try to figure out what that right mix is."
The Guard currently provides most troops for military support missions in Kosovo and Egypt, and new missions may arise in Africa, Grass said.
For now, the budget problems will not affect any service members' paychecks, and no new changes in troop levels are planned. But the active-duty Army's planned drawdown from 570,000 down to 490,000 soldiers during the next several years may make Guard slots harder to land.
Grass said younger troops transitioning from the active-duty force, such as specialists, sergeants, lieutenants and captains, will likely have plenty of opportunity with the Guard. But more senior troops, those above staff sergeant or major, will find more competition for billets.
Grass said he's meeting regularly with officials at the Pentagon as well as the state-level adjutants general to stay on top of the fast-moving budget situation.
"My message to the forces has been to hang in there," Grass said. "We've been challenged before. We will get through this."