Guard #Operating: How the Army National Guard Fits with the AOC


As Army National Guard officers reading the Army Operating Concept, we are immediately struck by the question – where do we fit in? In end note # 7, the text remarks that “In all cases, unless indicated otherwise, use of the term Army includes the active component, the U.S. Army Reserves (USAR), and the Army National Guard (ARNG). Total Army is not used in the AOC to alleviate confusion. Total Army as defined by some senior leaders includes civilians (the Total Force includes civilians, families, retirees).” While this catch-all inclusivity can elicit a feeling of one team, ongoing and sometimes contentious discussions between the components over force structure, such as the aviation restructuring initiative, have the potential to poison the well of the total force. However, the areas where the AOC does mention the National Guard are worth evaluating. There are future areas where the National Guard can provide a valuable contribution to the strategic “win”. The ARNG is tied to the active force more than any time since the World Wars, and the total force continues to depend on an operational reserve component. ARNG units are embedded with active forces, have commanded active forces, and provide force depth. Most recently, National Guard units were tapped via executive order to participate in supporting operations in West Africa as part of the Ebola response. The ability for the reserve force to relegate readiness to previously acceptable standards is no longer a smart option.

For the National Guard, contributing to the winning team occurs in many roles both in combat and non-combat operations. The Guard is mentioned three times in the body of the document and once in the appendix on information operations. The Guard’s mission is first mentioned in the engaging regionally section. The ARNG ties into the total force and our partner nations both through the State Partnership Program (SPP) and in Special Operations Detachments regionally aligned to COCOM areas of responsibility. The SODs, while not well publicized, are unique because they tie the Guard to several important active force functions including regional engagement, conventional forces, and SOF partnerships, as well as integrating reserve component with active component forces in real world missions. The ARNG undoubtedly has a major role in responding to crises in the homeland and again brings unique capabilities of the Civil Support Teams spread geographically throughout the US with the training and capacity to respond rapidly to chemical, biological, or radiological threats. These teams of full time Guardsmen have a high priority and zero defect mission. The ARNG in the draw down era is already suffering capability gap in aviation and other mission critical areas due to the effects of sequestration and reduced budgets.

Soldiers of Army National Guard 162 Engineer Company attached with 2nd Combat Engineer Battalion of the USMC pray in front of their MRAP which was recently hit by road side bomb (Shamil Zhumatov/Reuters)

These ways in which the Guard will contribute to the fight are both unique and complementary in nature, meaning that while the Guard provides depth to similar structure found in the AC (such as additional standalone Sapper companies), it also adds significant breadth to the total force. This breadth includes both the type of capabilities that are too costly and too “niche” for the active component to realistically maintain, as well as the longstanding personal and organizational competencies that set the ARNG apart from other components, such as its Title 32 “state” mission sets. While the importance of the depth the ARNG provides is generally being acknowledged as essential in an environment in which the AC will take a significant size cut, the latter is less well known.It is in large part through this strategic breadth, however, that the Guard will enable the success of the AOC as it is translated into practice.

Homeland Response

In the preface to the document, GEN Perkins underscores the necessity of the interoperability of the Army as it navigates new challenges. He then identifies a variety of domains in which potential crises will be confronted. Among them is the homeland, the traditional domain in which the ARNG has played a lead role in responding to a variety of scenarios. Prior to 9/11, the Guard had settled into a long period of being the “home” team, rising to confront both manmade and natural threats to the nation’s citizens and infrastructure. The ARNG continues to be very comfortable in this role, and in fact receives additional resources to support that effort. These financial resources, known as “NGREA” dollars, or congressional funds for the reserve components that are allocated outside of traditional defense appropriations, help meet the resourcing demands incurred by dual missions.These resources, of which the ARNG is the largest RC recipient, help ensure that the ARNG remains a ready and viable partner in the joint and interagency homeland response environment. The Guard’s funding mandate is tied to its utilization of so-called “Critical Dual Use” equipment, items that are either not found in regular Army supply rooms, orrelied upon by the Guard to perform both domestic and wartime roles. NGREA, a longtime enabler of ARNG strategic breadth, translates intoa variety of real world successes, as in the case of key modernization gains for the ARNG’s UH-60 Blackhawk fleet, which is the oldest in the Army.

ANG Earthmoving Scraper (Wikimedia Commons)

Of course, resourcing levels will continue to be a matter of some concern for all of the services in future budget fights, and the ARNG is no exception. This is why the Guard must also maintain its ability to add value to homeland response scenarios through other means, such as its superior interagency prowess and partnering. Long before the active component stepped up its focus on Defense Support to Civil Authorities (DSCA) (Fifth Army only took on its DSCA role in 2004) the Guard was operating alongside such partners as FEMA and state emergency planners to prepare for and respond to a variety of future challenges. As the ARNG repeatedly deployed in support of the Iraq and Afghanistan campaigns, these partnerships endured. Today, as wartime mobilization requirements decline toward a minimal amount, the Guard will continue its essential role in the homeland environment, maintaining localized ties at the organizational and individual basis that will pay dividends whenever the next large event occurs. This spirit of interoperability and inter-reliance, seeded throughout the AOC, aligns with the Guard longstanding core competency of “phase zero” coordination and collaboration. Undoubtedly, this principle is equally as important in the homeland domain as it is globally.

Value Added in the Shaping Domain

Much is written in the AOC about the Army’s increasing focus on shaping operations, those missions and activities that occur far before the onset of conflict. This growing emphasis translates into a fairly new range of activities for the bulk of the active force, most recently accustomed to COIN-like operations, and training for large scale combined arms maneuver before that. For the ARNG, however, the Army’s renewed emphasis on shaping operations merely represents a shift toward the sorts of activities that it has been performing for decades. The Guard’s State Partnership Program, now in effect for more than twenty years, boasts 93 partnerships between Guard forces in the 54 US states and territories and international partner forces. In Africa, the site of the active Army’s first deployment of a regionally aligned brigade, the Guard has been partnering since 2003. In the CENTCOM AOR, the Arizona National Guard’s partnership with Kazakhstan has been ongoing since 1993. Relationships matter, and the ARNG has arguably taken the lead in creating and cultivating them in an immense variety of places that might matter a lot down the road.

Croatian and Minnesota National Guard Soldiers prepare to clear a room during an Operational Mentoring and Liaison Team training exercise at the Joint Multinational Readiness Center

Beyond these enduring partnerships, the ARNG also enables successful implementation of the AOC in another way, what we will call Abilities Beyond Warfighting (ABW). ABW manifest themselves in a variety of ways, but are germane to the AOC in two: the ability of the ARNG to leverage civilian-acquired skills in ways the active component cannot, and the skill in non-warfighting tasks that ARNG units provide. Civilian acquired skills enable AOC tenets in a variety of important ways. For example, as a combat engineer platoon leader in Iraq I was fortunate to lead a number of civilian law enforcement personnel whose skills I could leverage in detainee operations and evidence collection. Beyond the value added in these randomly occurring scenarios, the ARNG has also used the civilian acquired skills of its soldiers in another way: by formalizing the civilian acquired skills model and forming special purpose units such as Agribusiness Development Teams (ADTs) to assist local populations in the cultivation of livestock, the smart utilization of irrigation assets, and the training of agricultural best practices. Far from being a one-off success, the ADT model was actually being utilized in Central America for twenty years prior. In an AOC model that emphasizes the shaping environments away from sources of conflict, this sort of capability is potentially a great value.

The other ABW advantage possessed by the ARNG is its host of diverse non-warfighting soldier and unit skills. As the active component reduces in strength, it will continue to seek foremost the preservation of its combat units while also adjusting for readiness and modernization efforts. This, of course, is understandable given the core mission of the organization of fighting and winning the nation’s wars. The active Army’s preservation of its combat capability, though, comes with a commensurate cost, namely the loss of a host of combat support and combat service support enablers. Unfortunately, some skills being lost by the AC in this force reduction align with unmet needs in partner Armies. Fortunately, however, the ARNG will likely retain a more balanced mix of combat and noncombat structure, thereby offsetting AC losses while continuing to meet the mark set by the AOC to “sustain long-term relationships and apply their unique civil-military expertise across military, government, economic, and social spheres.” In doing so, the ARNG can be called upon to provide valuable breadth to the team effort of preventing conflict and shaping the security environment. ARNG well drilling teams, logistics assets, asphalt units, bridge companies, and a host of other foundational infrastructure development enablers all have an important role to play in this effort. After all, some tasks cannot be accomplished from the cockpit of an Apache alone.

US Soldiers with 229th Engineer Company Wisconsin Army National Guard help clear out Combat Outpost Talukan in the Panjwai District of Kandahar province (Sgt Kimberly Hackbarth/US Army  Photo)

Information Dominance

In 2009 the US Navy combined its information warfare branches (Electronic Warfare, Information Operations, and Cyber). In 2010, the US Army un-retired the 2nd Army as part of US Army Cyber Command, with oversight on 1ST IO Command and INSCOM at Fort Belvoir. This force structure missed a golden opportunity to tie in the ARNG as part of an overall cyber response mission. These headquarters created a centralized response to the growing national security threat for the military at the national command level. In an unconstrained budget environment each state should have an information dominance office that overseas state level response in concert with federal responses for cyber crimes, cyber terrorism, and to counter domestic information threats. Many states have created a Joint Emergency Operations Center which allows for ARNG and other state agencies to combine efforts in a homeland response scenario at the state level along with Federal Agencies. Homeland Response exercises such as Vigilant Guard in various states tests the readiness of these entities to known, potential, and wild card threats. From a Red Team perspective, where our homeland response is weakest is at the state and local levels to emerging information threats and attacks on soft network infrastructure. Newly established Cyber Response Teams (CRTs) address some of this need, but not all.

Set the Theater

As previously discussed, the ARNG possesses a wealth of civilian employment expertise (aka “civilian acquired skills”) and experiences (as does the Active force to a degree) to leverage for the difficult task of preparing forces and equipment to mobilize for combat. If this talent is properly managed, the ARNG could take on a significant burden of CONUS and OCONUS tasks to set the theatre with experienced logistics professionals who can carry civilian best practices and cross populate industries. Recruitment and retention efforts to train and certify ARNG members in key Set the Theatre tasks also provides a means of continuing to bridge the civil military divide and lower Veteran unemployment within key civilian industries. The Army already data mines these capabilities through the Army Civilian Employment Information survey required to be filled out annually by ARNG members. Talent management reform to optimize the AOC has already generated conversations and white papers; matching capabilities with desired mission sets would produce a more flexible force able to meet challenges as they arise. Regionally aligned ARNG and USAR logistics units such as the Mobility Support Units which enabled countless Army rail head operations since 2001, can provide a framework for this type of unit function.

The ability for ARNG units to provide port operations capabilities in CONUS would allow for active Army forces such as the Rapid Port Opening Element units to maintain focus on operating ports in forward areas. ARNG units with locations at major mixed use ports such as Long Beach, Beaumont, or Charleston with a portion of the unit who works at the Ports full time and can quickly transition to pushing military equipment out the door to a deployment environment. Even in their activation under Title 32 or Title 10, they are still located close to home with limited requirements for personnel support. The ARNG within CONUS should provide an enabling capacity for the active force to concentrate on threats overseas within their regional areas of focus. The active force can provide doctrinal mentorship and shared operational resources for setting the theatre while reducing force burden by drawing from experts already within the force.

Maintain Capacity

The Soldiers of the ARNG worked diligently and were funded for the growth and fielding of equipment to allow units which were often marginally equipped to meet the ARFORGEN model. As we draw down significant force structure, the ARNG and the Army cannot afford to allow the reserve component to degrade in capacity. From a completely apolitical standpoint, rebuilding degraded equipping and force structure are far more expensive than maintaining the capacity within the ARNG. After the majority of 20th century conflicts, readiness, particularly in the reserve components, was allowed to slip in order to maintain active force capacity. The political courage and institutional fortitude required to make these hard decisions is an unenviable task, but the lessons of inadequately equipped and prepared ARNG units in early conflicts in Iraq cannot be repeated. Thus, it is imperative to maintain a so-called “operational National Guard”, the characteristics of which the current Chief of the National Guard Bureau General Frank Grass has referred to in congressional testimony and elsewhere as, “accessible, ready, and capable.”

Georgia National Guard Soldiers train at Fort Gordon, Ga, for an upcoming deployment to Afghanistan on Nov 20, 2010.

General Perkins includes a timeless quote from British historian Michael Howard in the preface, “No matter how clearly one thinks, it is impossible to anticipate precisely the character of future conflict. The key is to not be so far off the mark that it becomes impossible to adjust once that character is revealed.” Wherever the Army fights in the future, the fate of the ARNG and the active force are intertwined more now than ever before. This linkage is a strategic as well as an operational advantage, and one not enjoyed in many other armies worldwide. Unlike in WWI and WWII, where ARNG divisions returned to peaceful stateside training missions, our involvement throughout the world continues daily. As we move forward together, the most important step of implementing the AOC within the ARNG is communicating to our traditional drilling reservists where this strategy fits in their 63 man days of training a year, and how to take a concept and turn it into action.


John McRae is a U.S. Army armor officer and a student at the Naval War College’s College of Naval Command and Staff. Mike Denny is a logistics and procurement manager and U.S. Army National Guard Aviation Officer. The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.


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