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National Guard, reserves brace for budget cuts

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WASHINGTON — The National Guard and Reserves may take the brunt of defense-related budget cuts just when the nation needs them most, officials warned Congress.

With spending reductions looming over the Defense Department, Guard and Reserve commanders said their services can help make up for expected cutbacks in the active services, including a shrinking Army — unless lawmakers or the administration try to return to the days when reservists were considered weekend warriors and received lower priority for materials and training.

“We are no longer the reserve. We are the Army,” said Lt. Gen. Jack C. Stultz, commander of the Army Reserves. Already, 85 percent of transportation-related units and 75 percent of medical units are in the Army Guard and Reserves, he said.

“More of this capability is probably going to shift our way,” Gen. Stultz said at a hearing of the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Readiness.

The concern about the Guard and Reserve comes as Pentagon leaders warn about still-deeper cuts that would result if a congressional “supercommittee” cannot reach agreement on debt reductions this fall. Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta told reporters this week that such a failure, which would lead to automatic reductions across the government, “would seriously weaken our military” by slashing some $1 trillion.

The debt reduction deal reached by Congress already requires the department to find $450 billion in savings over a decade.

“We simply could not avoid hollowing out the force,” Mr. Panetta said.

The prospects for the Guard and Reserve — which heavily use Fort Drum for training — are especially dim because history suggests officials will look there first for cuts, said John Goheen, a spokesman for the National Guard Association of the United States. Because active-duty commanders oversee the Guard and Reserves as well, he said, they only naturally look to protect their own first in budget fights.

“We’re concerned and we’re frustrated by what we’re hearing,” Mr. Goheen said. “We think we need to rely more on the Guard, but the fear is that history will repeat itself.”

Military officials often say that the Reserves are no longer a strategic force but an operational one, given their constant deployments since 9/11, especially in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Army Reserve totals about 205,000 soldiers, having dipped in 2002 and 2003 after members shied away from the heavy deployment schedule, Gen. Stultz said. Numbers have grown again as benefits increase and recruits embrace the idea of deployments — albeit without giving up their civilian lives entirely.

If the Reserve were to return to the strategic approach, he said, people who joined for those reasons might leave, taking with them the medical and other skills upon which the Army has come to rely.

Defense officials have not spelled out specifically where they will look for spending reductions, except to say that some health insurance copays are likely to climb and the Pentagon will look for “efficiencies” in operations and contracting.

Should officials look to installation operations, Fort Drum would face changes. Rep. William L. Owens, D-Plattsburgh, a member of the House Armed Services Committee, said that he had not heard much along that line but that “it’s a little hard to tell where people will look.”

Fort Drum’s use for training and the importance of the 10th Mountain Division make the case for its protection from deep cuts, Mr. Owens said. And he said he has heard nothing on the House side of the Capitol about a future base closing round, although Sen. Kirsten E. Gillibrand, D-N.Y., has cited that possibility.

Mrs. Gillibrand, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, has called a statewide conference for military communities and business chambers Oct. 14 in Syracuse to develop a base realignment and closure plan for New York.

In a speech at Fort Hamilton in New York City last month, Mrs. Gillibrand said a new BRAC round could start as soon as 2013, with closures coming in 2015.

Mrs. Gillibrand’s comments may be the first suggestion on Capitol Hill that base closures eventually will become part of the discussion — even though they cost money in the early years, and the long-term savings are a matter of debate. The Defense Department has only recently finished implementing the 2005 round.

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