Written By Daniel Sloan For USMilitary.com
If you spend any appreciable amount of time listening to the news, you’re probably about as sick of hearing the word “sequestration” as I am. Military sequester cuts, originally conceived as a budget-cutting mechanism so brutal and indiscriminate that Congress would simply have to act before allowing it to happen, it ended up the law of the land when Congress proved unable to legislate an alternative (or at least unwilling to put aside partisan bickering and do so). To add insult to injury, the 10% across-the-board cuts were made based on 2012 budget levels because no 2013 budget had been approved—and now never will, as the president only days ago signed a continuing resolution that in essence extends the 2012 budget until the end of fiscal 2013 on 30 September.
Shortly after sequestration hit the Army Times ran a piece showing some of the first impacts of the cuts at military posts around the country. Issues highlighted ran the gamut, from commissaries closing one day a week to a shortage of training ammunition for Marines. In early March I had the privilege to attend the Louisiana National Guard’s Joint Senior Enlisted Workshop, and naturally budget issues were high on the list of concerns, right up there with suicide prevention and the mental and physical health of our veteran soldiers and airmen. As I mentioned in another post, it was during that meeting that the first announcement of the Army’s elimination of the Tuition Assistance program came down the chain.
I’d like to share in this space the impact that budget cuts are having on the military from my particular and narrow perspective: that of a senior noncommissioned officer in a combat arms line unit of the Army National Guard. As this new fiscal reality unfolds, I would be interested in hearing anecdotes from other service members as the cuts filter through the U.S. military.
We are already being told that ammunition will probably be at a premium. The current guidance mandates qualifying units only to a T3 standard. There are four training levels, from T1 to T4, and T1 is the best, so now performance in the third quartile is acceptable. To put that in high school terms for you, anything down to a 26 is a passing grade. Travel pay for anything not deemed essential has also been cut.
One of the single greatest effects is systemic, though. The process I’m about to describe was in motion before the sequestration hit, but the budget crunch has only intensified competition while simultaneously raising the possibility that cuts will be expanded.
There are 20 brigade combat teams (BCTs) in the Army National Guard. (There are many more brigades, and for that matter lower-echelon units, in the Guard, but they are not combat arms brigades.) One of the BCTs will be cut at the end of fiscal 2014. Over a year ago the process to determine which unit will go started. The National Guard Bureau (NGB) will evaluate a set of metrics called Operational Readiness—a report card if you will—to make the selection.
Some of those metrics are rather obscure, such as negative end strength, but taken as a whole they are focused on personnel readiness. Without going into the whole eye-glazing list, some examples are an attrition loss rate of less than 16%, skill level 1 vacancies less than 15%, NCO vacancies less than 10%, personnel who are “medically not read” falling into medical readiness categories 4, 3A, and 3B less than 5%, 10%, and 2% respectively, and overall strength at 99.9%.
The primary end result of the need to meet these various benchmarks is that our focus has been shifted to two things: recruiting and retention. The assumption that NGB and Big Army hold is that a mobilized unit will have time to train at its mobilization station, and therefore the most important thing is that the unit have enough qualified and medically-ready personnel to be effective. I can certainly appreciate the logic of that stance up to a point, but considering we spent two months at our mobilization station for our 2010 deployment (compared to about four in 2004), I have to say whether two months is enough depends on what we’re asked to do.
It disturbs me—and I’m not the only one—that the last time my brigade was fielded and maneuvered as a brigade-level combat unit was in 2001 for our National Training Center rotation. We did train for a conventional warfight in 2002 and 2003 (I missed those two Annual Training periods, spending 2002 on a training exchange in Belize and 2003 at the Basic NCO Course), but only at the battalion level. The brigade’s missions were very different on both Iraq deployments, granted, but as those counterinsurgency fights wind down I personally think it’s time to shift our focus. The U.S. military has, after all, long been notorious for planning and training to fight the last war.
Although I doubt there will be much political will for any large-scale foreign adventures for some years to come, we don’t always get to make those choices. Sometimes the other guy makes them for us. What I don’t want to have is a force—even if it’s “just” the National Guard—that looks good on paper but isn’t qualified to do much more than run company-level ops, if that. That’s the path to getting soldiers killed unnecessarily in the event bad and ugly things happen in some obscure corner of the globe—and personally, I haven’t seen the world getting any prettier lately.