Sunday, June 1, 2008

Iowa Guard's Readiness Strained by Iraq Deployments

Multiple deployments to Iraq by Iowa’s National Guard have not only taken their toll on the wear-and-tear of unit equipment needs, but servicemen, their families and their employers have felt the strain – physically, mentally and economically.

These shortcomings have not gone unnoticed by one Iowa congressman

In the wake of the House’s approval of the National Defense Authorization Act recently, Rep. Dave Loebsack, D-Iowa, who serves on the House Armed Service Committee, met with Iowa National Guard officers at the Iowa City Readiness Center May 24 to assess the readiness levels of the Guard. Because of the continued presence in Iraq, National Guard units, on average, have only 63 percent of their required equipment.

“We have huge equipment concerns, especially now with multiple deployments overseas, so we need to replenish the equipment losses,” Loebsack said. “We are at about 60 percent readiness of what we need here with the Iowa National Guard. That is why we’ve authorized more money for equipment in the Defense Authorization Act.”

The bill authorizes nearly $2 billion for unfunded readiness initiatives and authorizes $800 million to provide the National Guard and Reserve with critically needed equipment. Additionally, it protects our troops in harm’s way by authorizing $2.6 billion for additional Mine Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicles, $947 million for additional Up-Armored Humvees, and $783 million for the continued procurement and enhancement of personal body armor.

“Clearly, there is a shortfall and we are trying to remedy this situation. The idea is to get up to 75 percent of what the Guard needs over the course of the next two years,” Loebsack said. “Our National Guard is doing a fantastic job. We’ve seen a change in operations as far as the mission with the Guard is concerned, and they are really picking up the slack and doing great things overseas.”

Shifting the role of the Guard

Brig. Gens. Mark Zirkelbach of the Army National Guard and Doug Pierce of the Iowa Air National Guard cited the Guard’s shift of operation as the biggest challenge threatening readiness.

“The Guard has changed since the Global War on Terror began,” Zirkelbach (pictured left) said. “We’ve moved from what we called a strategic reserve, which would deploy only once, until the draft kicked in and help proved the adequate manpower needed to be fully operational.

“This is how we died it in WW II, Korea, and Vietnam,” Zirkelbach said. “Today, we have an all-volunteer force, which is an operational force, meaning, instead of relying on a draft, Guard members will serve multiple deployments to help replenish manpower.”

Echoing Zirkelbach’s assessment, Pierce (pictured right) said: “We are matching and doing the same mission at the same rate as the active-duty members. We have good equipment; it’s just that we are using it more often and wearing it out at a faster rate.

“The problem has come to the surface now because of our continued rotations,” Pierce said. “We’ve been going overseas since 1996, but recent deployments have put more of a strain on our equipment and personnel."

Moreover, Pierce said, one of the biggest challenges the Guard faces is keeping pace with the operation’s tempo and subsequent wear-and-tear on the equipment. “We are using more equipment and using equipment more often, so it tends to wear out faster," Pierce said. “We need recapitalization and new acquisition of the airplanes and equipment we already possess.”

Taking care of the troops

Another aspect facing the Guard’s readiness is the impact the current wars have had and will have on the troops, their families, their employers and recruitment of new members. “We also need to have more people in the Guard, too,” Loebsack said. “They’re doing a great job recruiting, but beyond that we need to be concerned with the troops’ physical and mental health as well.”

Regarding enlistment, Zirkelbach said: “We will enlist more people this month than will separate from the service. The Iowa Guard will grow this month.”

Sharing equipment

The recently passed appropriations won’t go into effect until next year, so in the meantime, the Guards will have to use alternative means to procure equipment for their deployment needs.

“The shortages in the Air Guard aren’t as prevalent as they are in the Army Guard,” Pierce said. “However, I do foresee future issues regarding our current F-16s in Des Moines. They are older models, and because we are using them more frequently, I can see them wearing out much sooner.

“One way to address concern is by sharing equipment and planes with other units in Madison, Wis., and Great Falls, Mont.,” Pierce said. “We’ve been doing this long enough, so we have a pretty good checklist of what equipment impacts the unit the least when sent over to help the troops in the theater.”

Moreover, Zirkelbach said that units that have been alerted for deployment are receiving equipment through procurement and that if the procurements aren’t sufficient enough, then states are cross-leveling equipment to these units. “For example, we are moving some of our weapon systems, night-vision equipment and some vehicles to help other states satisfy their equipment needs,” Zirkelbach said.

Vehicles parked in the motor pool of the 109th Medical Batallion in Iowa City await next deployment orders

Zirkelbach, however, is concerned that units don’t have the proper equipment to train with before deployment, nor do they have enough full-time support to keep day-to-day operations functioning effectively and efficiently. “In order to generate readiness, we really need the equipment now in order to prepare, train and support our troops for the mission they will be conducting,” Zirlebach said. “Our full-time manning is currently less than what is required, thus creating additional work loads in providing readiness in Iowa and helping provide other states with what they need for deployment.”

Minding the home front

Given the number of weather-related disasters Iowa has faced in recent years, namely flooding and tornadoes, concerns have mounted as to whether the Guard will be prepared to adequately and efficiently handle these situations when they arise.

“We need vehicles for support and communication equipment to help speed up our response time,” Zirkelbach said. “We’ve had up to 50 percent of the Guard deployed over the last five years and we’ve managed to respond to every significant weather-related event. It has not been an issue during this time and we don’t perceive this will be a problem in the immediate future.”


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