WASHINGTON – The Army National Guard would avoid personnel and equipment cuts under proposals from two South Carolina lawmakers.
Rep. Joe Wilson, R-Springdale, and Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-Seneca, are leading an effort on Capitol Hill to preserve the size of the military's reserve forces and help reserve units, including one outside of Columbia, keep their attack helicopters.
The Pentagon has recommended a 5 percent cut to the Army National Guard and the Army Reserves and a reorganization of the Army's aviation program that would, in part, swap out the Guard's Apache helicopters and replace them with Blackhawks.
As two wars end and money runs tight, the Defense Department is downsizing several programs. But resistance is fierce from both parties in Congress.
"We must find a way to adjust the military in a way that is not only budget-conscious, but also able to maintain the level of readiness necessary to protect our nation's interests," Wilson told his House colleagues.
Wilson and Rep. Bill Enyart, D-Ill., want to freeze the size of the Army National Guard at 350,000 members, and have government auditors analyze the overall Army force structure by next March. Their amendment, which had not yet received a vote Wednesday during an extended committee hearing expected to last into early Thursday, also would prohibit transferring Apache helicopters through 2015.
The number of Army National Guard members would drop from 358,300 to 335,000 under the Army's budget plan. That number is expected to fall even further — to 315,000 — if sequestration spending cuts return as expected in 2016. Under those deeper cuts, South Carolina's Guard force would drop from about 9,200 soldiers to about 8,600, according to one estimate.
Defense officials say the helicopter reorganization, which includes retiring Kiowa helicopters, would save $12 billion over five years. In South Carolina, it would mean that 24 Apaches now at McEntire Joint National Guard Base would be moved to active-duty units elsewhere and be replaced by 20 Blackhawks, which are better suited for disaster relief and emergency response.
The Adjutants General Association of the United States, which represents National Guard leaders in each state, opposes the helicopter moves. In a letter given to members of Congress, the organization said the Pentagon's recommendation "is a first big step to taking away the Army National Guard's historic combat role, and it is the experience gained through the command and control of combat units that makes the Army National Guard so successful in large-scale domestic operations."
The House Armed Services Committee spent Wednesday amending the fiscal 2015 national defense policy bill. It remains several steps away from becoming law.
On the Senate side, Graham and Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., introduced legislation Tuesday that is similar to Wilson's proposal. Graham said the proposed cuts are too deep.
"The changes fundamentally alter what it means for the National Guard to be a combat reserve of the Army, and they would render the nation's operational reserve insufficient in its ability to retain gains in experience and readiness the reserve has achieved over a decade of deployment," Graham said.
The Graham-Leahy proposal would allow the transfer of no more than 72 Apaches from Guard to active-duty units, and only after the Pentagon certifies the transfers wouldn't degrade the Guard's role as a combat reserve.