Congress is about to elevate the position of chief of the National Guard Bureau to full membership on the Joint Chiefs of Staff, joining the JCS chairman, vice chairman and four service branch chiefs as top military advisers to the president and his national security team.
It’s a controversial bump in power and prestige that proponents argue honors all who have served in the Army and Air National Guard during a decade of war, expansion of the homeland security mission, and raised expectations by the public for swift, effective responses to natural disasters.
Current members of the Joint Chiefs oppose the move, finding no military reason for the elevation, and several potential problems. But National Guard representation on the JCS is hugely popular with state governors and adjutant generals, with 468,000 current guard members and with many politicians. With defense budgets tightening, it is an inexpensive way to show fresh support and appreciation for home state militias.
“I really think momentum for this started with Katrina,” said retired Maj. Gen. Gus L. Hargett Jr., president of the National Guard Association of the United States. Within days of that massive hurricane hitting the Gulf Coast in August 2005, almost 60,000 Guardsmen were deployed. Yet President Bush also ordered to New Orleans an active duty force of 5,000, the 82nd Airborne, a move that grabbed the spotlight and chapped Guard leaders.
If the National Guard chief at the time, Lt. Gen. Steve Blum, “had been a member of the Joint Chiefs we would have never sent the 82nd Airborne to Louisiana,” Hargett said. The Guard “would have done all of that itself and it would have been a more of unified effort” versus “two chains of command working to do the same thing.”
The House last May led Congress into making the National Guard chief a permanent member of the JCS, giving voice vote to this as part of a block of more obscure amendments to the fiscal 2012 defense authorization bill.
Senate approval came Nov. 28, also on a voice vote, in this case for a stand-alone amendment from Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., to the Senate version of the defense bill. But Leahy’s amendment had 70 co-sponsors.
Indeed by early November, with the Joint Chiefs grumbling and Leahy’s initiative gaining steam, the Senate Armed Services Committee called a hearing of historic significance. For the first time all six of four-star officers on the JCS appeared to testify and share their concerns.
The lone witness testifying in favor of putting the National Guard Bureau chief on the JCS was Gen. Craig R. McKinley, current NGB chief.
The Defense Department’s general counsel, Jeh Charles Johnson, also testified, advising that while the change would be legal it “could create legal confusion as to whether the Army and the Air Force chiefs of staff continue to represent their total force.”
Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, JCS chairman, added that active and reserve component forces now are indistinguishable on the battlefield, in part because service chiefs of Army and Air Force “are the single voice for their respective branches…The proposed change could undermine this unity of effort.”
Dempsey also noted that only two of six reserve components would be represented so directly on the Joint Chiefs, “creating what could at least be the perception of inequity” for Reserve forces.
A more important concern, Dempsey said, involves accountability.
“Each of the Joint Chiefs is subject to the civilian oversight of a single appointed and confirmed secretary. The chief of the National Guard Bureau has no such oversight. Elevation to the JCS would make him equal to the service chiefs without commensurate accountability,” Dempsey said.