AUGUSTA, Maine — Recently revealed proposals to drastically change the Maine National Guard may be controversial, but they aren’t without precedent.
Back in 1976, pilots in Bangor were chafing at the idea of trading in their fighter planes for flying fuel tankers. The 101st Fighter-Interceptor Group of the Maine Air National Guard had operated out of the Queen City in one form or another since 1947.
But Brig. Gen. Philip Tukey, the group’s leader, saw that change was coming.
Improvements to long-range missiles made the potential for an aerial battle with the Soviet Union increasingly unlikely. The Air Force was downsizing, but Tukey saw an opportunity for Maine. It was a perfect location to refuel the remaining planes that would fly the northern route over the Atlantic Ocean.
So kick-started the transition of the 101st Fighter Group to what it is today, the 101st Air Refueling Wing, and his pilots were not pleased.
“Imagine fighter pilots being told, ‘You’ve got to get rid of your cool fighter planes, and you’ll be flying these big refueling tankers,’” said Brig. Gen. James Campbell, the adjutant general of the Maine National Guard. “It was extremely contentious and created a lot more flack than we’ve seen in the last month.”
Tukey’s bold decision is instructive today. All but two New England fighter wings are gone, but the 101st Air Refueling Wing is still active and relevant, all because Tukey recognized big changes were coming.
In the National Guard, as elsewhere, the ability to adapt is crucial.
A changing military landscape
Campbell has been at the center of controversy since contingency plans to convert the storied 133rd Engineer Battalion into an infantry group were leaked to the Portland Press Herald.
In a recent interview, Campbell said the plan is one of several contingencies, albeit the most likely one, and that no final decision has been made.
The battalion is the state’s oldest, tracing its roots to the Revolutionary War. It has deployed overseas many times, and members often volunteer in local communities. This weekend, for example, soldiers in the 133rd will work with the Boy Scouts of America on construction projects at Camp Roosevelt.
There were some who greeted the idea of change with skepticism, or even scorn. Maine’s congressional delegation started asking questions, and Gov. Paul LePage originally said he would not allow the 133rd to be converted.
Campbell was overseas when the plan was first reported. Upon his return, he described the proposal as an attempt to deal with the massive constraints facing the Maine National Guard.
There’s the proposed cut of tens of billions of dollars in defense spending, on top of cuts already imposed by sequestration. Plus, the end of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have military brass reconsidering the role of each branch of the military.
Most agree the future is in counterterrorism and counterinsurgency. That means more quick, decisive missions such as the one to kill Osama bin Laden.
So the role of the Army — and the Army National Guard — will be reduced.
“We don’t anticipate conducting major, conventional ground operations anywhere in the world for quite some time,” Campbell said.
Top-level Army officials in the Pentagon say the National Guard should be cut by between 15,000 and 45,000 soldiers. Meanwhile, they want what’s left to become more maneuverable. That means more light companies, such as infantry and armored groups, and fewer support units — such as engineers.
Last fall, the Army National Guard Bureau told Campbell that it planned to eliminate around 40 engineer units nationwide.
“They told us, ‘You have a higher density of engineers than any other state in New England, so you need to start thinking,’” Campbell said. The 133rd consists of four companies and one survey and design team. Rhode Island, New Hampshire and Vermont have just one company each.
“I’ve been doing this for 28 years,” Campbell said. “When somebody says something like that, a light bulb goes on and you say, ‘OK, we’re going to have a problem unless we get out in front of this.”
Other units also in jeopardy
The bureau also is mandating that New England add an infantry unit, so Campbell is hopeful that Maine’s 133rd can be converted, giving those soldiers a chance to transition to a discipline more relevant to the Army’s needs.
That’s how the leaked plan originated — as an effort to meet the dual demands of fewer engineer units while taking advantage of a growth opportunity.
But it’s not just the engineers who are facing change: Campbell identified several other units whose mission may no longer fit with military designs. With the U.S. military effort in Afghanistan winding down, need for military police diminishes. So Maine’s 488th Military Police Company is “potentially in jeopardy,” Campbell said.
The 152nd Component Repair Company, a maintenance unit that works on large military vehicles, will have to be converted or eliminated by 2019, as the Pentagon shifts all heavy maintenance to contractors or a central Army depot elsewhere in the country.
Unless Congress changes course — and Campbell is optimistic, perhaps to a fault, that it will — Maine’s Guard contingent could be cut by 222 positions in the coming years. That would put total forces at fewer than 2,000 — the lowest since Maine achieved statehood.
Campbell has argued for years that the best way to reduce military spending while maintaining a capable force is to shrink the active Army, which is more expensive, while maintaining or even growing the less costly National Guard.
He continues to make that case. But ultimately, he says, the Maine National Guard is the strategic reserve of the Army and Air Force. They call the shots.
Units lost over time
The Maine National Guard has been changing, sometimes painfully, for years. Before 9/11, Guard members rarely deployed. Today, there isn’t a single company that hasn’t gone overseas at least once.
In the early 2000s, the highly decorated 121st Air Traffic Control Company was dissolved, and the above-mentioned military police unit was commissioned. More recently, a fifth engineer company was added to the 133rd.
Perhaps the biggest change was the elimination of the the entire 152nd Field Artillery Battalion — with four companies throughout Aroostook County — in 2007. The Army simply decided it no longer had a need for the kind of artillery units developed to fight expansive land wars in Europe.
“Generations of families in The County had served in that artillery unit,” Campbell said. “When it went away, it was wrenching.”
Individual soldiers in the 152nd were offered retraining, but many simply retired, Campbell said. When they were gone, they weren’t replaced. All told, the Maine Army National Guard shrank by about 300 positions as a result of losing that field artillery battalion, Campbell said.
He similarly stresses that if the 133rd is transitioned, retraining will be available. The National Guard doesn’t do layoffs, Campbell said.
‘We’ve done this before, so we can do it again’
Campbell predicts that by 2020, the Maine National Guard will still have an engineering capacity, but likely not a full battalion. Headquarters will be smaller. There will be more light units such as infantry and armored groups and smaller or reconfigured support groups, such as the maintenance company. Unlike today, he said, every job in the Guard will be open to women.
Ralph Leonard of Old Town is civilian aide to the secretary of the Army for Maine and former assistant adjutant general for the Maine Air National Guard.
But before that, he was a bomber pilot in the 101st Fighter-Interceptor Group in Bangor. He was one of the pilots retrained to fly tankers, and like many others, he initially bristled at the change.
“I liked flying fighter jets,” he said in a recent interview. “But I learned to fly tankers because that’s what they needed.”
Leonard, like Campbell, said the state would maintain an engineering capacity but would adjust itself to meet the needs of the military, just like it’s done before. He said he trusted Campbell to usher in that change.
“We’ve done this before, so we can do it again,” he said.
Follow Mario Moretto on Twitter at @riocarmine.