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Army Guard Wants to Scrap Some Tank Units

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Facing a new mission since Sept. 11, the Army National Guard plans to transform some of its tank units into light infantry units that can be rapidly sent to military hot spots in the United States or abroad, Army officials said Sunday.

The restructuring is designed to lighten the Guard force by jettisoning some aging tanks and turning four brigades into general-purpose “mobile light brigades” that could perform everything from significant battlefield operations in wartime to homeland security tasks, such as guarding nuclear plants.

Army Secretary Thomas E. White approved the plan last month as part of Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld’s directive to alter the guiding strategy of the armed forces. Rather than being ready to fight two major wars simultaneously, the Pentagon is now preparing to engage in a broad range of smaller conflicts and “asymmetrical” threats--such as terrorists--on several battle fronts.

“This initiative will help the Guard become a more deployable, more mobile, and more flexible force, better-suited to support our nation at home and abroad,” White said Sunday at a National Guard conference in Long Beach.

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Over the last two months, senior Army officials have been briefed on the plan, announced three days before the anniversary of the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

The changes would require the approval of Congress, where some members are likely to chafe at the prospect of losing heavy equipment in their districts, and are tentatively scheduled to take effect in fiscal year 2008.

The revamped units could also be sent to Bosnia-Herzegovina or Kosovo to replace U.S. peacekeepers, or they could remain close to home for domestic duties, a senior Guard official said on condition of anonymity.

“We would envision this being used in a critical infrastructure project role--the Golden Gate Bridge type of thing--or a nuclear plant protection scenario, or perhaps a border security role,” a second senior Guard official said.

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Although the Army Training and Doctrine Command is not expected to finalize the plan until late fall, Army sources said it targets units with aging M-1 and M-113 tanks that are costly to maintain and have no prospect of being deployed in the near future, one of the senior Guard officials said. Although Guard units have been sent to Afghanistan and elsewhere in the war on terrorism, they have not taken the breakdown-prone tanks with them.

“The units we’re looking at have the oldest equipment in the Army inventory right now,” one of the officials said. “We have units that have equipment that’s going to be falling apart before we get to it.”

The planned revamping of the Guard units would mark an interim measure in the Army’s effort to transform itself into a lighter, more agile service that officials have dubbed “the objective force.”

“I would characterize this as a recognition that the Guard’s role has changed. We need to get past the Cold War force that we’ve had,” a senior Guard official said. “We were talking about homeland security requirements long before 9/11--9/11 just put an exclamation point on it.”

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The change will convert about one-third of the Guard’s heavy brigades, including 3,000 vehicles, to mobile light brigades. Tank drivers would be reassigned to reconnaissance and other missions, the officials said. All were light units in the 1970s and became heavy units in the 1980s and 1990s. They were designed to fight Cold War-era battles, such as a conflict with the Soviet Union or North Korea.

The transformation is both philosophical and economical. The Army spends about $1.5 billion a year on heavy brigades and $1 billion on light brigades, although short-term costs would initially be higher due to the cost of buying new equipment. Army officials said they could not yet estimate those costs. Tracked vehicles, such as tanks, would be replaced by Humvees, trucks and all-terrain vehicles already in Army inventory.

Lt. Gen. Roger Schultz, director of the Army National Guard, said he was still deciding which sites would be affected, but he added that the changes could touch parts of as many as four Guard divisions, each with up to 15,000 soldiers.

Other senior Guard officials expected the impact to be limited to two divisions in the end, with a total of four heavy brigades--each with 3,000 to 5,000 soldiers--likely to be singled out for transformation to light brigades. Three are from the New York-based 42nd Division. Two brigades from the 38th Division, in Michigan and Ohio, are expected to be merged into a single brigade and transformed into a light unit, Army sources said.

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In the 42nd Division, they could include the 3rd Brigade, based in Buffalo, with subordinate units in New York, Buffalo and Staten Island; the Montpelier, Vt.-based 86th Brigade, with subordinate units in Melrose, Mass., and St. Albans, and Rutland, Vt.; and the Ft. Dix, N.J.-based 50th Brigade, with units in Riverdale, Woodbury and Port Murray, N.J. In the Indiana-based 38th Division, it could include the 46th Infantry Brigade, based in Wyoming, Mich.

The units scheduled for transformation could change if more modernized brigades opt to take part, Guard officials said. The California-based 40th Infantry Division, for example, has M-1 tanks and M-2 Bradley fighting vehicles and is responsible for the most populous state in the union.

However, the adjutant general of the 40th, Maj. Gen. Paul Monroe, said he was not inclined to volunteer his unit before he knows what shape the larger transformation of the Army, due to be completed in 2030, will take. The 40th’s duties have already changed three times since the 1960s, he noted, and each revision has driven some soldiers out. In addition, the California Guard is still undergoing a reorganization that began four years ago, he said.

“So you lose a lot of people and you have to go out and recruit a lot of other people,” Monroe said. “I would just as soon not put California through another major reorganization until we know how the Army’s going to look.”

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The Guard has about 450,000 part-time soldiers, but the exact number in some divisions remains unclear. Some units have been criticized for falsely reporting higher numbers to hold onto federal money and to mask their difficulty in retaining soldiers. In January, a recruiter in Indiana, Master Sgt. Robert Wyse, was convicted of forgery for faking physical exams on some would-be soldiers.

Guard officials say they are conscious of staffing concerns and plan to limit the effect of the changes.

“There’s always a concern as you convert from one skill to another,” Schultz said. “There’ll be some retraining.... It’s our intent to minimize the turbulence.”


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