Reducing overall U.S. troop levels may put a strain on states’ resources, particularly when they need to respond to natural disasters.
While lawmakers, both inside and outside the Beltway, often fight to keep military dollars flowing to their constituents for political reasons, this time around they’re aiming to keep the Pentagon from making cuts to Army National Guard personnel, the ones who respond to wildfires and hurricanes.
The Army has proposed reducing the number of guardsmen from about 355,000 to 335,000 starting in fiscal 2015, which begins on Oct. 1. That level could drop even further, down to 315,000, if Congress doesn’t find a way to avert the automatic spending cuts known as sequestration that are scheduled to resume in 2016.
State governors did not welcome the proposal.
“The nation’s governors strongly oppose the potential cuts to the Army National Guard advocated by the U.S. Army’s fiscal 2015 budget request,” the National Governors Association wrote in a letter, signed by all 50 members, to the White House after the Pentagon announced its plan. “The modern National Guard is a highly experienced and capable combat force and an essential state partner in responding to domestic disasters and emergencies.”
The Army said the cuts are part of a reduction in troop levels in the years ahead for its National Guard, reserve and active-duty components, which is expected to drop from about 510,000 to between 440,000 and 450,000. As a result, the Army’s budget request for next year is $120.5 billion, down from $125 billion this year and a recent peak of $144 billion in 2010.
National Guard expertise and their access to equipment such as UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters helped Colorado last year when it battled a wildfire that scorched 16,000 acres, claiming two lives and about 500 buildings in the process.
“Active duty and National Guard soldiers fought the flames, rescued our citizens from rising floodwaters and saved countless homes,” Sen. Mark Udall (D-CO) said at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on April 8. “In Colorado we benefited greatly from having National Guard Black Hawks available to perform search and rescue missions, evacuate flood victims, drop water on wildfires, even deliver hay to cattle stranded by blizzards.”
Colorado also relied on Air Force C-130 planes to drop retardant as a means of containing wildfires.
Army National Guard troops helped battle wildfires last year in California, where some rural residents have been paying protections fees of $150 to help bolster the state’s firefighting budget. In New Jersey and New York, the National Guard rescued residents during Superstorm Sandy in 2012 and provided food and drinking water in the aftermath.
While the National Guard reductions would vary by state, each would see some level of cutbacks. For example, Maryland would probably the loss of as many as 500 soldiers in the state’s 4,700-member force.
“As our government confronts the hard choices that need to be made during these times of fiscal uncertainty, decision-makers need to understand that cuts to Guard personnel and force structure means degradation to domestic response,” the National Guard Association of the United Sates, a lobbying group, said on its website.
Some members of Congress have already introduced legislation calling for further study of the proposed reductions. The Army says that delaying the cuts would actually increase costs by about $1 billion each year and pull money away from readiness accounts.
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