Under President Barack Obama’s budget proposal for 2016, our nation’s active U.S. Army would shrink from 390,000 to 375,000 men and women. At the same time, the Army National Guard would be reduced from 350,200 to 342,000. Brig. Gen. James D. Campbell, adjutant general of the Maine National Guard, believes – rightly, in our view – that the simultaneous reductions are bad policy.
Here in Maine, more than 200 members of the state’s 2,100-member Army Guard were on the chopping block when the planned reductions in force were first announced last year. Guard leaders subsequently proposed to convert the 133rd Engineer Battalion and other units to the 103rd Infantry Regiment. That transformation, which got the OK in Washington, has reduced the number of soldiers who would be lost to about 20.
Campbell and Governor Paul LePage, along with their counterparts across the nation, are working to maintain the Guard’s current force levels. And in December, congressional leaders established a National Commission on the Future Structure of the Army to examine the force structure changes, thus putting the reductions on hold until February 2016.
Campbell notes that during post-wartime periods, the nation historically has reduced the regular Army and increased the Guard. Given current budget constraints, he said, “we don’t have the money to maintain a large regular Army, and the Guard is a great alternative.”
A year ago, the Department of Defense observed that as the U.S. economy began to get back on track, recruiting those qualified for military service as a career became more difficult. Higher military standards and health issues have combined to make recruiters’ jobs more difficult in recent years. With increasing civilian employment opportunities, overall interest in the military declined. At that time, the Army’s Delayed Entry Program had filled only about one-third of its annual recruiting goal.
More recently, departing Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel observed in an exit interview that with an all-volunteer force and the same people rotating through as many as five and six combat tours, more and more young officers were indicating their intention not to re-enlist. “Uncertainty of budgets, uncertainty of are we going to continue to cut the force? That is very dangerous,” said Hagel.
Much of the Middle East is embroiled in civil war and the fight against terrorism. There are ever-increasing tensions between the United States and Russia over turmoil in Ukraine. China has made clear its intent to expand its sphere of influence in the Far East. These are challenging times for the United States as it looks to assure this country’s security into the next generation. In such circumstances, Campbell’s call to “either retain the strength of the Guard nationwide or to have it grow” makes sense as a cost-effective alternative to a shrinking active military force.
It may well be that, whether the reductions in force are implemented or not, the transformation of Maine’s Guard from engineering to infantry better meets the operational needs of today’s Army. But from a domestic point of view, a state-based engineering Guard is far better prepared than an infantry unit to cope with the sorts of emergencies that likely will arise here in Maine.