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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Monday, November 29, 2004

Guard's airmen fill in for soldiers

By Frank Oliveri
Advertiser Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON — Lt. Col. Craig Ishizaki is more comfortable wearing headphones and communicating with incoming aircraft as a controller than he is carrying an M-16 and leading a quick-reaction force.

But times are changing for the Hawai'i Air National Guard. Airmen have been ordered to train for homeland security missions such as supporting local law enforcement in case of a terrorist attack or natural disaster.

The reason: About 2,500 of the state's 3,000 Army National Guard members have left or are preparing to leave for Iraq and Afghanistan. Ishizaki's airmen are taking up the slack.

"I've never come across this in my career," said Ishizaki, a 30-year veteran.

The heavy use of reserve forces overseas has uncovered staffing and equipment shortfalls at National Guard armories across the nation. The Government Accountability Office recently revealed a post-Cold War military strategy that intentionally left units short of people and equipment, assuming that those units would have time to get what was needed before heading overseas.

It hasn't worked out that way.

Quick deployments have forced the Guard to transfer people and equipment from units staying home to those preparing to go overseas. About 74,000 people and 35,000 pieces of equipment had been shifted as of May to help deploying Guard units get ready, GAO found.

Those left behind aren't as able to perform their homeland security missions.

Ishizaki said his airmen normally provide air traffic control and combat communications for flying units. He said Hawai'i Army Guard units trained airmen for three days in the finer arts of controlling access points, inspecting vehicles, securing buildings and coping with civil disturbances.

"These are not skills at the forefront of the Air Guard," Ishizaki said. "But now it's coming to the forefront."

In response to the GAO report, T.F. Hall, assistant secretary of defense for reserve affairs, said the Pentagon has begun a plan to get all Army Guard units on a path to combat readiness within five years. The Army also said it is in the process of defining the Army Guard's role in homeland security.

Hawai'i is about 3,000 miles — five to seven hours — from outside U.S. military support in case of terror attack or natural disaster. Maj. Gen. Robert Lee, commander of Hawai'i's National Guard, said he's lucky he has an Air National Guard contingent of about 2,400 airmen to help plug holes in Hawai'i's homeland security planning.

"I feel sorry for those states with smaller Air Guard units," Lee said.

He said about two-thirds of his airmen are in flying units. The non-flying unit has taken on the quick reaction mission and will continue to do the mission on a rotational basis with Hawai'i Army Guard units.

"We're OK here," Lee said. "But we are running on fumes."

He said his Army Guard units are about 10 percent undermanned. They also lack modern M-4 carbines with optical scopes.

His soldiers are training with the regular Army at Fort Bliss, near El Paso, Texas, where they are receiving scopes for their M-16s, updated body armor and other equipment. His units also will take over armored Humvees left behind in Iraq and Afghanistan by units rotating back to the United States.

While the training is necessary, it forces National Guard troops to serve 18 months on active duty, which is hard on families, Lee said. If the Army spent more money for Army Guard training at their home units, those units could deploy quickly while reducing their overall activation time to a year overseas.

The Air National Guard can move to active operations almost immediately because it keeps about 30 percent of its force on active status, Lee said. In comparison, the Army National Guard has only 10 percent of its forces on active duty.