March/April 2015 Issue
Budget cuts have the Arkansas National Guard
thinking more like a business.
Photos courtesy of Arkansas National Guard
Top Photo: Staff Sgt. Skipper J. Smith of the 39th Infantry Brigade’s Benton-based Echo Company, 1-153rd Infantry Regiment, assists in the cleanup after the 2014 Vilonia tornado. Photograph by Sarah Jones.
New Marching OrdersThe Washington, D.C., political rhetoric was white-hot in the summer of 2011. Everyone was sick of debt-ceiling crises and the specter of a government default. So Congress passed the Budget Control Act in August of that year, which would cut nearly $1 trillion from the U.S. federal budget over 10 years, or through 2021. It provided for even more cuts by way of a bi-partisan committee, one that would be forced to work together to avoid automatic “sequester” cuts placed in the bill like a time-bomb that no one wanted to see explode.
But working together didn’t happen, so the sequester cuts did. Much of their impact landed squarely on national defense. While the news cycle has moved on, those cuts continue to build. No one in Arkansas has to deal with them more than the Arkansas National Guard. And the organization has responded — by trying to think more like a private business.
“The Budget Control Act originally cut $487 billion out of the Department of Defense’s budget over a 10-year period,” said Lt. Col. Matt Snead, public affairs officer for the Arkansas National Guard. Sequestration added approximately another $500 billion to that amount. The result is a Department of Defense budget losing close to a trillion dollars for 2011-21.
“We really started seeing the impact in 2013,” Snead said. “That’s how legislation works. You pass it one year, but it’s kind of a trickle effect. It takes a year or two before those changes actually impact an agency.”
One trickle-down effect being felt in 2015 is in the Guard’s schools funding, which provides the class-based training for guardsmen to move up in rank, learn new jobs, etc. The fiscal 2014 budget for that item was $8 million. For fiscal 2015 it is $3.2 million, a 61 percent drop.
How can the Guard deal with such a reduction? The service requirement for guardsmen when they are not mobilized on active duty is one weekend per month and two weeks in the summer. Snead said one option being looked at is having guardsmen get their schools training during those two weeks of duty, which have traditionally been used for field training with their unit.
Other belt-tightening measures will be needed as well.
“The incentives to come into the Guard, the incentives to come into the military, and the retention incentives, they’re going to suffer some reductions, and have suffered some reductions,” he said.
The danger in such reductions is the potential for degrading the readiness of units.
“We have a federal and state mission,” said Snead. “We have the same [federal] mission as every other military service, which is national defense. We deploy overseas when necessary, to Iraq, Afghanistan, wherever we’re called. But we have a state mission no other military service has, that’s unique to the National Guard. And that is when the tornado comes through Mayflower and Vilonia [for instance], the governor calls us out and we respond … and assist local authorities.”
But can the Guard continue to do all that with its budget being trimmed so deeply?
“It’s probably like any business or corporation. We’re taking a hard look at how we can maintain individual and unit readiness to respond, while balancing some of these budget constraints,” said Snead. “And it’s made us take a hard look at certain programs and activities. Are these things that we have to do?
“Our federal and state core mission, at the end of the day that’s our product, that’s the product that we’re providing,” he said. “So we have to look at everything we do. How does it affect our ability to do those two missions? If it’s not directly supporting that, it could be in jeopardy of going away.”
Some of the troops may disappear, as well. One of the options the U.S. Army is considering is reducing the Army National Guard from 355,000 to 315,000 nationwide. The National Guard views that reduction as too severe, believing that anything below 335,000 would be a mistake. Snead noted that a 2013 study commissioned by the Reserve Forces Policy Board looked at the fully burdened, life-cycle cost of reserve soldiers versus full-time, active soldiers. It considered costs such as pay, pension, day care, and housing.
“They found that the cost of a guardsman is 32 percent that of an active component [soldier],” Snead said. “So the conversation back to the Army has been, maybe it’s not so much about reducing force structure as it is moving force structure into the Guard and Reserve.”
It’s a conversation between the Army and Guard that Snead said has not been resolved. A 2013 budget deal brokered by U.S. Senators Paul Ryan and Patty Murray created some time for back and forth by limiting the sequester cuts in 2014 and 2015.
“If full sequestration comes back into effect [in 2016], under the current Army’s plan, the Arkansas Army National Guard is set to lose upwards of 800 positions,” Snead said. “That’s about 12 percent of our Army National Guard. That’s a pretty big hit.”
As to when cuts might level off and the budget normalize, Snead said that despite political pundits who think they have a crystal ball, in the end no one really knows.
The ramifications go beyond national defense, as well. The Arkansas National Guard is important to the state’s economy. In 2014, the Army and Air Guard paid some $153 million in salary across the state to roughly 9,000 guardsmen, and more than $70 million to 577 civilian employees. More than half the counties in Arkansas have a Guard unit, and guardsmen live in every county.
In Benton County, one of those is Chief Master Sergeant Asa Carter of the Air National Guard. Carter serves as state command chief and has been in the Guard for 32 years. He joined as a way to serve his country while getting help to finish college. He has been called to full-time, active duty twice, once during the Gulf War and again for a year after 9/11.
Like many guardsmen, Carter holds a full-time job when not on duty. He has worked for Wal-Mart for 29 years. As senior manager of security projects, he manages field technicians and regional managers who install burglar and fire alarms, as well as cameras and access control systems. Some of his staff are in the Guard, too, so he has a view of the challenges facing both guardsmen and their employers.
He said Wal-Mart is very supportive of Guard service, and the military in general.
“In my role as command chief at the wing, I’ve had to sometimes get involved [in situations] where employers weren’t quite as supportive,” he said. “But for the most part, I think the employers in Arkansas do support the military. It becomes a hardship for them sometimes if it’s a small shop.”
And even at a large corporation, Guard service can create challenges for the employees left behind.
“When those airmen or soldiers are gone, we feel the impact of that,” Carter said of his department. “The way you have to overcome that, in our business, is someone has to pick up that workload while they’re gone. Out in the field, where a technician or project manager or regional manager may be pulled away, we can backfill some of those positions with contractors, or we have their peers fill in for them.”
It works the same way when Guard duty calls Carter away. “I have two peers who are very good to support me and they step up and take care of that. And I try to stay in contact on the phone or the computer. But it does put a strain on the co-workers and the organization.”
But there are reasons why a business might gladly take on such strains, Carter said. And they go beyond patriotism.
“We want those people who are dedicated to the task, who are disciplined to stay at it and get it done, who don’t back down from any challenges,” he said. “Resiliency is what it is, those people who can overcome obstacles. They don’t back down from that. The military offers that [skill] to the soldiers, airmen, sailors, and marines. So we, as a civilian employer, if we can get those people in our organization, they bring those skills with them. And those are skills that are hard to teach in a class. You get those skills through experience and time.
“I think it’s important that all of us support the soldiers and airmen in what they do out there,” Carter added. “We have a big problem right now of them coming off of active duty and not being able to find employment. It’s critical that we support them in what they do and stand behind them.”
Snead echoed Carter’s sentiment in the value that guardsmen can offer to their local business community. It goes beyond the money they spend.
“Only 17 percent of the 17- to 35-year-olds who live in Arkansas are eligible to join, so we take the best of the best and we give them technical training, vocational training,” said Snead. “We give them the option to get some very reasonable health care. We require them to maintain fitness, which means less sick leave. So the more guardsmen you have in your community, the better workforce you have.”