It is no secret that the U.S. is facing a wide-arcing set of national security issues – from a rising and potent China to an ambitious Russia, to ongoing asymmetric threats from transnational crime and terrorism – and which cross all domains, from sea, air, and land to space and cyber. The 2018 National Defense Strategy – which remains in place as the nation’s guiding defense strategy until it is updated in 2022 – made these concerns abundantly clear and set forth a strong vision for recalibrating the nation’s defense to respond to these challenges.
By Travis Wright*
The 2018 NDS established a major change from past quadrennial defense reviews in that it prioritized the threat posed by re-emerging nation-states, such as China and Russia. This concern – a return to the great power competition and the potential for state-on-state conflict – necessitates a robust and flexible force structure with modern capabilities to deter or respond to defense challenges as needed. The 2018 NDS makes this point clear – stating the need to:
“Develop a lethal, agile, and resilient force posture and employment. Force posture and employment must be adaptable to account for the uncertainty that exists in the changing global strategic environment. Much of our force employment models and posture date to the immediate post-Cold War era, when our military advantage was unchallenged and the primary threats were rogue regimes.”
Moreover, the 2018 NDS describes the need for “Dynamic Force Employment” – which, as envisioned and described,
“Will prioritize maintaining the capacity and capabilities for major combat while providing options for proactive and scalable employment of the Joint Force. A modernized Global Operating Model of combat-credible, flexible theater postures will enhance our ability to compete and provide freedom of maneuver during conflict, providing national decision-makers with better military options. The global strategic environment demands increased strategic flexibility and freedom of action. The Dynamic Force Employment concept will change the way the Department uses the Joint Force to provide proactive and scalable options for priority missions. Dynamic Force Employment will more flexibly use ready forces to shape proactively the strategic environment while maintaining readiness to respond to contingencies and ensure long-term warfighting readiness.”
That the 2018 NDS clearly elaborated on the need for flexible and updated force structure is a good thing – particularly given the rapidly shifting security dynamics of the modern world. The future of national defense – and our credibility as the global force for good – is going to require both flexibility and strength in numbers.
However, in the three years since the 2018 NDS was released, the Department of Defense (DoD) and the U.S. Army – the nation’s largest service with the biggest budget and responsible for providing the bulk of land force combat capability – have still not publicly set forth clear plans on what that force structure looks like in terms of overall divisional end-strength. The fact that Army has not taken complete action to establish and validate its total force commitment would be understandable if Army doctrine and the NDS had recently been approved – but the National Guard has been operating in this limbo status without a real understanding of its role, its force commitment and attendant requirements for several years.
This is vital and needs to be addressed and rectified for several reasons – not the least of which is how the Army intends to use Army National Guard (ARNG) divisions to finalize the force structure. This ongoing delay in understanding poses major complications for the National Guard, particularly given the Guard’s unique reporting role to both State and Federal authorities.
Several concerns resulting from this lack of validation emerge. A non-validated force structure cannot be placed into bigger Army modernization programs, making planning and operations difficult, confuses requirements, and could put ARNG force structure at risk when considering future budget cuts. As a result, major force structure cuts would cause closures of ARNG armories and flight facilities across the country – this, of course, would have a major economic impact at the state and local levels. Additionally, this lack of confirmation on force structure leaves State level leadership unclear on how their ARNG forces are to be deployed.
As DoD continues to prepare for the challenges facing the nation deeper into the 21st Century – especially as budget pressures continue to limit the latitude of choices and options for the total joint force – the ARNG stands as a highly flexible, extraordinarily capable, and cost-effective force dedicated to America’s national defense. Fiscal pressures will undoubtedly result in budgetary constraints over the next several years – thus, the cost-effective value of the National Guard in positively contributing to our overall force posture is clear. Simply, the ARNG provides the U.S. with a deployable combat capability, at a high level of operational readiness, for a significantly reduced cost. The National Guard can be quickly mobilized to support active operations, with limited preparation, training, or workup time – and without the costs associated with health care, feeding, and billeting for active duty forces. For these reasons alone, DoD needs to validate the substantial role of the ARNG in setting new end-strength.
Moreover, the doctrinal shift from counter-insurgency/counter-terrorism operations to great power competition requires a fundamental shift from the old ways of thinking and re-thinking how best to integrate the flexible, on-demand nature of the National Guard to best complement enduring missions. The National Guard serves as an enduring service where citizen-soldiers not only support traditional “fires and floods” missions but emerging missions in cyber, space, and countering misinformation. These capabilities are only available to commanders if the underlying force structure is adapted to meet today’s new realities and not the missions of yesterday. DoD planners must not fall into the trap of taking the easy, short-sighted route of simply cutting the National Guard – this mistake has been made before. The capabilities, authorities and proven reliability of the National Guard provide a versatile tool for our nation’s most pressing issues.
And when not activated under Title 10, the National Guard provides America with several advantages and capabilities that are becoming increasingly important. This is clear especially in the wake of the events of 2020, which saw the largest mobilization of the National Guard for a wide range of domestic operations (DOMOPS) – from responding to natural disasters to assisting in COVID-19 relief to addressing civil unrest. The most important thing to remember here is that the effectiveness of the ARNG in helping America at home comes from the fact that it is a military force, with military training, equipment and doctrinal approach that can be valuable for domestic needs under its unique legal authorities – and not the other way around. Put another way, the value of the ARNG in domestic operations is precisely because it is a military service; limiting the National Guard’s role under Title 10 functions would limit its usefulness in other capacities.
As the 117th Congress moves forward on completing appropriations for the 2022 Fiscal Year, and as the Biden Administration works fill the executive branch and to update the new NDS, greater attention needs to be paid to the role of the National Guard in helping America reach the required combat end strength we need to preserve our national security. Understanding the cost-conscious realities of the next several years – the National Guard represents a highly responsive, multi-mission capable force that can be quickly mobilized for national and global operations. The ARNG may not be able to do everything – but it does whatever the nation asks of it swiftly, effectively, and professionally.
*Travis Wright is a former Army National Guard officer and White House liaison.