ARLINGTON, Va. — Five years of war in Iraq has given the National Guard and Reserve combat experience, but has left them with a serious equipment problem, experts say.

The Pentagon began relying heavily on the Guard and Reserve early in the war to give the active-duty Army time to reorganize, said Christine Wormuth, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

“The view at the time was that the Army could not both transform itself and become modular and provide the 15 to 20 brigade combat teams in Iraq at the same time,” Wormuth said.

After five years, the Guard and Reserve are “arguably the most effective that they’ve ever been,” she said.

“That is due to the fact that far more members of the Guard and Reserve have combat experience than they’ve had in the past.”

But a recent independent commission report found that the Guard and Reserve were woefully unprepared to deal with a catastrophic terrorist attack on the United States.

Lt. Gen. Steven Blum, head of the National Guard Bureau, has conceded that only about 61 percent of National Guard units have the equipment they need, but he said officials hope to raise that number to 77 percent by 2013.

Wormuth said the Guard and Reserve’s equipment problem is offset by the combat experience they have gained, but she also said the overall health of the Reserve component is mixed.

“We need the Guard and Reserve to be marathon runners, and in that perspective, they’re not healthy enough to be marathon runners because you can’t run a marathon when you don’t have the equipment you need,” she said.

Retired Army Gen. Barry McCaffrey went much further, saying the Guard’s lack of resources and manpower have “put the country in peril.”

McCaffrey, a Vietnam and Desert Storm veteran who also was head of U.S. Southern Command, argued that the Guard’s primary mission must be to respond to domestic crises.

“For God’s sake, we want a huge national force capable of sustaining state governors and the president in an emergency,” McCaffrey said.

Local police and national law enforcement agencies simply don’t have the muscle that the Guard can bring to bear on a crisis, he said. McCaffrey said the Guard should have 100,000 troops dedicated solely to responding to a chemical or radiological attack.

Col. Gerald W. Ketchum, chief of operations for the Army National Guard, said the Guard makes sure it leaves governors the resources they need to deal with domestic crises when Guard units deploy overseas.

Ketchum, who once served under McCaffery, said the Guard is prepared for both of its role overseas and at home.

But McCaffrey said he does not feel it is an appropriate role for the Guard to be focused solely on the overseas mission when the United States goes to war.

“We cannot expect bankers and schoolteachers and coal miners to spend alternate extended deployments away from their civilian line of work,” he said.

However, the Guard has been widely used in every war with the exception of Vietnam, when President Lyndon Johnson relied on the draft to supply troops for the war, said Renee Hylton, a historian with the National Guard Bureau.

“The Guard right now is doing what they did in the Revolution,” Hylton said. “They are frontline combat troops.”

The Iraq war has seen the largest call-up of the Guard since World War II, she said. At one point, Guardsmen represented more than half of combat troops on the ground for the first time since 1942, Hylton said.

In December 2004, about 97,300 National Guard and Reserve were deployed, making up 37 percent of all U.S. troops deployed to the CENTCOM region, according to the Pentagon.

The Reserve component troops also include members of the Individual Ready Reserve, who are not attached to a Reserve unit and do not drill.

The Army’s initial attempt to draw from the IRR in 2004 was plagued by problems, prompting the Army to begin mustering 20 percent of the IRR each year.

The fiscal 2009 rotation to Iraq calls for eight Army National Guard brigade combat teams, or about 20,500 troops, not including supporting elements, figures show.

In January 2007, Defense officials announced that Guard and Reserve troops would deploy more often to give active-duty troops more time at home.

“Just as we are asking the active forces to do more in this time of national need, so we must ask more of our Reserve components,” Defense Secretary Robert Gates wrote in a memo shortly after taking office.

Sign Up for Daily Headlines

Sign up to receive a daily email of today's top military news stories from Stars and Stripes and top news outlets from around the world.

Sign Up Now