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Congress is about to elevate the position of Chief of the National Guard Bureau to full membership on the Joint Chiefs of Staff, joining the JSC chairman, vice chairman and four service branch chiefs as top military advisers to the president and his national security team.

It’s a controversial bump in power and prestige that proponents argue honors all who have served in the Army and Air National Guard during a decade of war, expansion of the homeland security mission, and raised expectations BY the public for swift, effective responses to natural disasters.

Every current member of the Joint Chiefs opposes the move, finding no military reason for the elevation, and several potential problems. But National Guard representation on the JCS is hugely popular with state governors and adjutant generals, with 468,000 current Guard members and with many politicians. With defense budgets tightening, it is an inexpensive way to show fresh support and appreciation for home state militias.

“I really think momentum for this started with Katrina,” said retired Maj. Gen. Gus L. Hargett Jr., president of the National Guard Association of the United States. Within days of that massive hurricane hitting the Gulf Coast in August 2005, almost 60,000 Guardsmen were deployed. Yet President Bush also ordered to New Orleans an active duty force of 5000, the 82nd Airborne, a move that grabbed the spotlight and chapped Guard leaders.

If the National Guard chief at the time, Lt. Gen. Steve Blum, “had been a member of the Joint Chiefs we would have never sent the 82nd Airborne to Louisiana,” Hargett said. The Guard “would have done all of that itself and it would have been a more of unified effort” versus “two chains of command working to do the same thing.”

The House last May led Congress into making the NGB Chief a permanent member of the JCS, giving voice vote to this as part of a block of more obscure amendments to the fiscal 2012 defense authorization bill.

Senate approval came Nov. 28, also on a voice vote, in this case for a stand-alone amendment from Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) to the Senate version of the defense bill. But Leahy’s amendment had 70 co-sponsors.

Indeed by early November, with the Joint Chiefs grumbling and Leahy’s initiative gaining steam, the Senate Armed Services Committee called a hearing of historic significance. For the first time all six of four-star officers on the JCS appeared to testify and share their concerns.

The lone witness testifying in favor of putting the National Guard Bureau chief on the JCS was Gen. Craig R. McKinley, current NGC chief.

The Defense Department’s general counsel, Jeh Charles Johnson, also testified, advising that while the change would be legal it “could create legal confusion as to whether the Army and the Air Force chiefs of staff continue to represent their total force.”

Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, JCS chairman, noted that he, like his predecessor, extended a standing invitation to Guard chief McKinley to attend JCS meetings. McKinley had enjoyed such access since becoming the first four-star officer to serve as NGB chief, the result of 2008 Guard reforms.

So, Dempsey said, “there is no compelling military need to support this historic change.” He added that active and reserve component forces now are indistinguishable on the battlefield, in part because service chiefs of Army and Air Force “are the single voice for their respective branches…The proposed change could undermine this unity of effort.”

Dempsey also noted that only two of six reserve components would be represented so directly on the Joint Chiefs, “creating what could at least be the perception of inequity” for Reserve forces.

A more important concern, Dempsey said, involves accountability.

“Each of the Joint Chiefs is subject to the civilian oversight of a single appointed and confirmed secretary. The chief of the National Guard Bureau has no such oversight. Elevation to the JCS would make him equal to the service chiefs without commensurate accountability,” Dempsey said.

But McKinley testified that, after three years on the job, he feels it is best for the nation that the National Guard chief be a full JCS member. Only full membership “will ensure that the responsibilities and capabilities” of Guard units in their non-federalized role of supporting governors and states “are considered in a planned and deliberate manner.”

His current effectiveness in getting resources and training for non-federalized missions are “based upon ad hoc or personal relationships” and not firmly rooted in the law and national strategy. The Guard’s domestic mission must get more consideration in contingency planning, allocation of scarce resources, and advice to the president, secretary of defense and the national and homeland security councils, he added

Threats to the homeland, he added, are more dangerous “than at any time in our history.” With the Guard chief as a full JCS member, he said, mission “planning and resourcing would be vastly improved.”

Many senators agreed.

“The citizen soldier’s time has come,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), in a rapid-fire prosecutorial exchange with service chiefs and McKinley.

“General Dempsey, you're a very fine man. But if you got pissed off at [McKinley], could you tell him to get out of the room?”

“Yes, I could,” the chairman said.

“Good, “ Graham said, and to McKinley added, “I think you need to be in the room with some weight behind you, not just an invitation.”

Others opposed JCS expansion. Sen. James Webb (D-Va.), a Marine in Vietnam and architect of the Post-9/11 GI Bill, said “anyone who's saying that citizen soldiers are not at the table right now is being unnecessarily divisive [and] unfair to the stewardship and leadership of the Army and the Air Force…This legislation is unnecessary.”

Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), committee chair, read reasons given by the Commission on the National Guard and Reserves in 2007 to oppose having the National Guard chief on the JCS. Topping the list was the fact that service chiefs have greater duties.

Hargett noted that the Joint Chiefs had opposed accepting the Marine Corps commandant in 1978 and passage of the Goldwater Nichols law in 1986, forcing the services to operate jointly. Both moves are now praised.

“So they are not always right,” he said. “And they are very protective of their turf. That’s what I believe this is about, more than anything else.”

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