National Guard Faces Dire Equipment Shortages

The war in Iraq is taking a toll on the Army National Guard's readiness for future combat duty. The plight of the Arkansas National Guard is a case in point: It was forced to leave millions of dollars of equipment in Iraq.

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.

The war in Iraq has taken a major toll on the Army's National Guard's readiness for future combat duty. That warning came recently from the man in charge of the Guard, Lieutenant General Steven Blum. He said equipment shortages have left many National Guard units facing what Blum called a dire situation. Much of the equipment Guard units took to Iraq was either worn out, destroyed or left behind.

NPR's John McChesney reports on how these shortages are causing problems for the National Guard in Arkansas.

Unidentified Man: Okay, lock and load 120-round magazine. Okay, are we ready on left? Left side is ready. Ready on the right? Firing line is now ready.

(Soundbite of gunfire)

JOHN McCHESNEY reporting:

This National Guard firing range is on green, rolling countryside, just outside Little Rock. When the soldiers file past with their rifles on their way to the positions on the range, a few were carrying were carrying modern M-4s. But most were carrying old M-16s. Captain Chris Heathscott says the unit is supposed to field new weapons, but they haven't arrived yet.

Capt. CHRIS HEATHSCOTT (39th Combat Brigade Team, National Guard): We're hoping to field those 2,500 weapons, but until now, they're training with the M-16s.

McCHESNEY: Which is a weapon that we were using in Vietnam.

Capt. HEATHSCOTT: That is correct.

McCHESNEY: Hope is the operative word here, with the 39th Combat Brigade Team, which left millions of dollars worth of equipment behind in Iraq when it returned to the states in 2005. The 39th commander, Colonel Mike Ross, says he's operating with about 35 percent of his authorized equipment.

Col. MIKE ROSS (Commander, 39th Combat Brigade Team, National Guard): I've got a responsibility to train these soldiers and get them ready for the next deployment. I don't have the equipment that I need to get them ready under the training model that has been given to me.

McCHESNEY: Ross, a big man with a burr cut, sports and ivory-handled Bowie knife on his belt, nicknamed an Arkansas toothpick. The Bowie knife is the symbol of the 39th, but only the commander gets one with an ivory handle. Col. Ross says the absence of those 2,500 M-4s is significant.

Col. ROSS: You qualify with your own weapon, you zero with your own weapon. That's your weapon. And so you've got to field those weapons to the soldiers.

McCHESNEY: Col. Ross says he's also short on so-called crew-served weapons, machine guns, artillery and mortars, as well as the new digital battlefield control technology. And, Ross says, even if he gets new equipment, he often can't hold onto it.

Col. ROSS: Other states are deploying units and I'm having to lateral equipment, you know, to help these units that are deploying to Iraq.

McCHESNEY: Ross says that if his unit gets called up again before he gets the necessary equipment, it could mean a longer deployment for his men.

Col. ROSS: If we had the equipment right here, during our drills, and one weekend a month and then our 15-day annual training, I can accomplish those training gates. And when the nation needs us, they deploy us and I'm ready to go. Otherwise, now I'm not ready to go, I have to go and spend six months training up on it, play catch-up. And the only reason I'm having to play catch-up is because I don't have the equipment available.

McCHESNEY: Extended deployments are one big reason the Guard has been struggling to maintain its recruiting numbers. According to Lt. Gen. Blum, who's the head of the National Guard Bureau in Washington, Arkansas isn't alone. And, he says, the lack of modern equipment has another kind of negative impact.

Lt. Gen. STEVEN BLUM (Head of the National Guard Bureau, Washington): One of the things it affects is the retention. They're not going to stay with us if they don't have equipment to train on. Their interest level will drop off and their sense of purpose starts to fade, and they'll start leaving us. And, frankly, this nation can't afford to lose these magnificent, experienced soldiers.

McCHESNEY: Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee recently, was asked about Gen. Blum's estimate that the Guard faced a dire situation.

Mr. DONALD RUMSFELD (U.S. Secretary of Defense): It's not fair to me that Gen. Blum said what you said he said. And I think if you talk to him - I don't know if you have - but if you do, I think you might find that you'd get a somewhat different picture than the characterization that you quoted.

McCHESNEY: Gen. Blum says he didn't hear what the Secretary said, and he doesn't want to second-guess him. But here's what Blum says he said.

Lt. Gen. BLUM: The question was asked, does the Army have sufficient equipment to make all of its units ready? The answer is no. And they said, well, is that the case in the Guard? And I said, no, to answer the case in the Guard is, of course we are in that situation and it's even more dire for us. It is, because we started with a lower level of fill to begin with.

McCHESNEY: Gen. Blum now says he's optimistic though, because the Defense Department is promising the Guard $21 billion over the next five years for new equipment. But Col. Mike Ross of the Arkansas Guard is more cautious, because he knows that his unit might be deployed again before any of that equipment arrives.

Col. ROSS: You know, I see a light at the end of the tunnel. I just, you know, just hope it's not a train.

McCHESNEY: John McChesney, NPR News.

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