CONTRIBUTORS

Fiscal reality, politics all at play in resolving complicated Guard battalion move

The 133rd Engineer Battalion marched from the University of Southern Maine campus to the Exposition Building as they prepared to leave for Afghanistan in 2013.
Alex Greenlee | Special to the BDN
The 133rd Engineer Battalion marched from the University of Southern Maine campus to the Exposition Building as they prepared to leave for Afghanistan in 2013.
Posted May 25, 2014, at 11:13 a.m.

As one of the Maine Army National Guard 262nd Engineer Battalion company commanders, who had to face his soldiers’ questions the last time the Maine Army National Guard lost an engineer battalion, I can certainly appreciate the concerns and the sense of loss and pride that have been expressed in recent articles concerning the proposed move of the Maine Army National Guard’s 133rd Engineer Battalion.

And after having spent the last three years of my career working with the National Guard Bureau and Army staffs that led to the Army’s restructuring and downsizing decisions that are articulated in the Congressional Research Service report mentioned in Nok-Noi Ricker’s BDN article on May 1, I am confident that many other concerned citizens and guardsmen around the nation are having similar reactions to the potential loss of Guard units in their states.

As this discussion and debate continue, it is important to look at this issue within the context of three larger issues facing the nation and the Army:

— The fiscal realities that led to sequestration cuts to the Department of Defense.

— The change in Army brigade combat force structure to meet emerging threats.

— The process by which these changes are implemented.

As a means to help solve our nation’s fiscal situation, the nation has directed the Defense Department to cut $50 billion a year from its budget. While $50 billion sounds like a tremendous amount of money to a family living in the state of Maine, this represents less than a 10 percent reduction to the Defense Department budget.

The means by which the Army has decided to provide its share of the cut is to cut the size of each of its components: the active Army, the Army National Guard and the Army Reserve. Given that it costs half as much or less for the American taxpayer to maintain a National Guard or Reserve unit as an active Army unit, maybe our debate should be on the most cost-effective active National Guard-Reserve mix of Army forces that can meet our future national security needs.

Would it be possible for the Army to keep all of its 1.1 million soldiers and provide the sequestration budget cuts by transferring active Army units and soldiers to the National Guard and Reserve? Such a situation would certainly allow Maine to keep the 133rd Engineer Battalion and add an infantry battalion.

In response to the change in potential future threats that the Army could face, the Army decided that all its brigade combat teams needed to comprise of three battalions (a change from the structure of two battalions). The active Army decided to “combine” the battalions from 45 brigades down to 33 brigades. The Army National Guard decided to retain its 28 brigades.

Given that the Army has directed the Army National Guard to decrease its size, the only means by which the Army National Guard can have its combat brigades meet the Army’s mandated brigade combat team structure would be to change existing units into infantry units. Additionally, as the Army continues to increase its reliance on contract support, such as Halliburton and Brown & Root for construction and logistics services, it is decreasing its requirement for engineer units. Given these Army changes, does it make sense for Maine to then change existing units into infantry units in order to retain all its guardsmen in uniform?

The process by which all of these changes are implemented takes years of discussions, considerations of different possibilities, and lots of give-and-take between the Army, National Guard Bureau, and the governors of each of the impacted states. Having these discussions during a time of contention and political maneuvering at both the national level and within the state of Maine only exacerbates the challenge.

Todd Chamberlain of Brewer is a retired Maine Army National Guard colonel.

 

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