By LOLITA C. BALDOR
Thorny issues involving the changing role of the National Guard and Reserves and friction between federal and state officials over who controls the citizen soldiers must be addressed, members of a newly formed independent commission said Monday.
Members of the panel, many of them retired military, said they will begin rolling out initial recommendations by June. They cautioned, however, that state officials should not look to the commission to overturn unpopular base closure decisions approved by Congress last year.
Instead, the 13-member panel, chaired by retired Marine Corps Gen. Arnold L. Punaro, will do a yearlong review of how the nation should be using the National Guard and Reserves, and whether the units are properly trained and equipped for their changing roles on the home front and the front lines abroad.
Punaro said Monday that the panel is planning to release a preliminary report around June 1, dealing with key issues _ including possible funding recommendations for re-equipping the Guard _ that Congress may be working on.
The commission, Punaro said, will look at "what are the threats, what are the requirements and where are the gaps." And, he said, the panel is not going to be reluctant to come out with recommendations that differ from those made within the Pentagon.
"We’re not going to dodge any of the tough issues," he said.
Commissioners said that members of the Guard volunteered to join a reserve force that they believed would be mobilized occasionally for short periods of time. But the reserves have evolved into a force that made up nearly half of the U.S. combat troops in Iraq, doing day-to-day military operations in unprecedented tours abroad.
The most difficult questions requiring in-depth study will include whether Iraq deployments affected the response to Hurricane Katrina, whether Guard members are trained appropriately for homeland defense and combat missions, and when and if it is appropriate to federalize the Guard _ an issue that came up during Katrina’s aftermath.
"It is one of the big, hairy unknowns _ what you do about that federal-state relationship," said panel member Rhett Dawson. "I’m not sure it’s allocated in the smartest way today and whether the controls are right, but I’m not sure I can improve on it."
While state governors are commanders of their national guard for domestic emergencies, the president can, and has, called out reservists to deploy to Iraq and do other federal military missions. A touchy issue during the hurricanes centered on whether Bush should have used a Civil War-era law to federalize the National Guard, enabling him to use those troops for law enforcement to quell looting and other problems.
The nation’s governors, including Republican Gov. Dirk Kempthorne of Idaho, have already met with commission members to discuss their concerns about federal funding for the guard, including the need to replace equipment that was destroyed or left in Iraq.
Kempthorne told the panelists he is worried that Idaho’s Guard units will not be as prepared for state disaster relief efforts in the event of forest fires or an earthquake because much of their equipment was left in Iraq, said his spokesman Michael Journee.
Lt. Gen. Steven H. Blum, chief of the National Guard Bureau, said recently that it will take about $40 billion to re-equip the Guard over the next six years _ twice the $21 billion that the Pentagon has proposed spending over that time.
Blum said that last year the Guard was providing up to 78,000 of the troops in Iraq, but that number will come down to about 50,000 this year.
Overall, the proposed 2007 budget would support a Guard of about 333,000 citizen soldiers _ the current level _ rather than the 350,000 authorized by Congress. It also proposes to pay for 188,000 Army Reserve troops rather than the 205,000 authorized by Congress.
On the Net:
Commission on the National Guard and Reserves: http://www.cngr.gov/