Called Upon in Pandemic, National Guard Fights Cuts to Equipment

Wisconsin National Guard troops will transport 37 people coming from the Grand Princess cruise ship docked in California to their quarantine locations in their home state. In a New York suburb, Guardsmen are helping keep a cluster of people infected with the novel coronavirus contained.

Maryland’s governor announced he’s activating the National Guard to carry out emergency functions such as food distribution, while in Puerto Rico Guard units at the airport are screening for the virus.

Almost 1,000 Guard troops were expected to be deployed by Friday after 33 states have declared emergencies because of the coronavirus outbreak, up from 400 troops at the beginning of the day, according to the National Guard Bureau.

Throughout, Americans likely will see the ubiquitous symbol of the National Guard: the Humvee. Yet, the workhorse vehicle, made by AM General, has taken a blow: the Pentagon has diverted funds meant for overhauling it to building the southwestern border wall and leaving the traditionally under-resourced National Guard even more in the hole.

Angus Mordant/Bloomberg
A resident carrying a bag of food passes in front of a member of the New York Army National Guard at a distribution center in New Rochelle, N.Y. on Thursday, March 12, 2020.

When governors declare states of emergency—a move taking hold in multiple states that seek to halt the spread of the coronavirus—they can activate the Guard. The states have the primary responsibility both for homeland security and for response to emergencies, disasters, and catastrophes.

Across the country, Guard troops are training personnel to respond to the virus outbreak, compiling state medical supply inventories, and preparing isolation housing, the National Guard Bureau said in a release.

The National Guard is playing a role in the coronavirus response even as its budget gets cut.

“What people are going to see, a lot of Guardsmen doing things in Humvees, and ironically the Humvee modernization funding was stripped away,” John Goheen, spokesman for the National Guard Association of the United States, said in an interview. “When the governors need help, who do they call? When the border needs help, who do they call? When Army and Air Force need help, who do they call? When the Pentagon needs to save money,where do they go—the Guard.”

Border Wall Shuffle

The Pentagon redirected $3.8 billion mostly from weapons systems to an account used for building the border wall, with more than $1billion coming out of the National Guard and Reserve funding. Specifically, $790 million would come out of the National Guard and Reserve Equipment Account, $169 million from two C-130J Super Hercules cargo planes for the Air Guard; and $100 million from the Army National Guard High Mobility Multi-purpose Wheeled Vehicle (Humvee) modernization program.

“The readiness of the National Guard is paramount to protecting the homeland,” the National Governors Association said. “Time and time again, with increasing frequency, the National Guard must answer the call to protect us from wildfires and hurricanes; flooding and landslides; and threats against our global and homeland security. Governors are united in urging the Administration to reverse course on the planned reprogramming and restore these critical funds.”

In the case of epidemics, the Guard’s tasks would vary from state to state, said the Guard Association’s Goheen. Guard units have training to work with quarantines and clean up as the Guard has chemical units and civil support units.

Grand Princess Drop

The Guard has vehicles, safety equipment and units that can drop supplies. For example, the National Guard dropped testing kits to the Grand Princess cruise ship in California.

The Guard units will always act “under civilian authority and assist local health departments and local law enforcement,” Goheen said. “That is why we have a National Guard.”

Some lawmakers are expressing concern that the Pentagon hasn’t taken enough steps to ensure reservists are ready to support civilian authorities.

“National Guard and Reserve engineering, medical, water purification and Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear and Explosive units have the capability to play a decisive role in combating the spread of the COVID-19 virus and helping communities weather and recover from any outbreak,” Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) wrote to Defense Secretary Mark Esper on Friday.

“I am concerned that the readiness of these units has not been assessed in any systematic fashion to date and that potential preparations for them to activate have yet to be taken,” Duckworth, who served in the reserves for 23 years, said.

Duckworth requested an assessment of individual unit readiness, equipment shortfalls, and a concept of operation to stand up capabilities in communities before civilian health and emergency infrastructure is overwhelmed. She also calls for looking at the status of ration stockpiles to help combat hunger among children should COVID-19 require schools to close for an extended period.

Invocation by President Donald Trump of the Stafford Act, will authorize the federal government, including the Defense Department, to assist the states in emergencies or natural and other disasters. Generally, Stafford Act assistance is provided upon request of a governor, provided certain conditions are met: primarily, the governor must certify that the state lacks the resources and capabilities to manage the disaster or emergency, according to the National Defense University.

At the national level, Guard members are training personnel on COVID-19 response, identifying and preparing Guard facilities for use as isolation housing, and compiling state medical supply inventories, according to the National Guard Bureau release.

Guard personnel will provide help to the states that includes logistical support, disinfection/cleaning, transportation of medical personnel, call center support, and meal delivery, according to the release.

To contact the reporters on this story: Roxana Tiron in Washington at rtiron@bgov.com; Travis J. Tritten at ttritten@bgov.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Paul Hendrie at phendrie@bgov.com; Robin Meszoly at rmeszoly@bgov.com

Top