Since its establishment in 1636, the National Guard has been employed in a wide set of missions around the globe. Recent domestic missions assisting with COVID-19 testing and vaccinations, aiding local authorities amid civil unrest and supporting the major national effort securing the 59th presidential inauguration represent important new chapters in its proud history.
National Guard leaders face an environment in which the likelihood, speed and complexity of these domestic operations are on the rise. To ensure our own team’s preparedness for these events, my battalion’s leaders and I have spent time studying best practices, reading after-action reviews, rehearsing and developing shared understanding. This preparation has been beneficial when operating amid the intensity of recent real-world events.
The following six principles capture some relevant lessons and observations for those facing similar circumstances:
1. Be transparent with National Guard members, families and employers. To paraphrase military theorist Carl von Clausewitz, although the character of the National Guard’s missions may be ever-changing, the nature of Guard service is immutable. It is a component that is continually asked to work outside its doctrinal comfort zone, on short notice and with limited resources. Leaders cannot eliminate these factors but can effectively manage them. For a component that prides itself on being people-centric, effective management means prioritizing transparency with three key stakeholders: soldiers and airmen, families and employers.
Long a staple of Guard service, the family and employer letter is one tool commanders can use to set expectations and anticipate questions before they arise. Drafting and delivering a message covering the five W’s of upcoming missions (who, what, when, where, why) helps lessen anxiety about the unknown and remove the burden from soldiers to personally explain their absence. In today’s environment, leaders should take care to carefully vet the timing and themes of these letters to ensure synchronization with their higher echelons.
Another resource is social media. Most states have a robust social media presence, and Guard families are now able to refer to state Facebook, Twitter and Instagram feeds to stay informed about what their soldier or airman is doing. Additionally, these public channels can ensure transparency on Guard life with a sometimes-overlooked segment: future generations of Guard members and families considering enlisting or awaiting initial military training.
2. Understand the broader context. The National Guard is uniquely positioned to respond to both the state and the nation in time of need. Operating in this nexus demands socially and politically astute leaders. This does not mean an openly partisan individual, but a leader who understands the policies, constraints, frictions and goals bearing on their military and civilian leaders. As one example, Titles 10 and 32 and state duty statuses impact the timeline and manner of National Guard employment. This is a key consideration for senior officials at the state and national level in the event of a disaster.
Although more immediately available, National Guard employment in state active-duty status comes with trade-offs. Funding for operations, insurance for members of the Guard and credit toward retirement are all different than in a federalized National Guard role. Given the importance of these nuances, an overview of the various duty statuses for the National Guard would be an excellent leader-development topic at the unit level.
Recent national tensions have reinforced the importance of the National Guard maintaining the public trust. For a local, community-based organization, this is truly a strategic institutional imperative. Public trust is an area in which leaders must understand the broader context of their unit’s employment to ensure all members are moving in sync. Specifically, this means preparing soldiers and airmen to operate in a 24/7, 360-degree media environment. It also means instilling a culture of mutual respect between Guard personnel and the community members they serve. On duty, lessening potential tensions, ensuring dignity, maintaining professionalism and upholding standards help the National Guard continue to succeed nationally.
3. Find innovative ways to combine federal and state training. The competing requirements of institutional and collective training, online and in-person instruction, Guard and civilian careers, and state and federal missions are nothing new to today’s Guard member. In fact, success as a leader lies in balancing these requirements. Today, the time and resource constraints of Guard service, combined with demanding state and federal missions, require deep focus, determination and forethought. One way to mitigate these competing requirements is to seek ways to align unit preparation for state and federal missions.
One example is driver training. Although unit modification tables of organization and equipment establish requirements for which individuals should be trained on specific vehicles, redundancy is an asset in domestic operations. Creating more trained drivers on the vehicles required for domestic operations helps overcome the combined risks of soldier unavailability, accelerated deployment timetables and Murphy’s law. Other ways to align annual requirements include pre-filling out the forms required for state activation as a part of annual Soldier Readiness Processing and utilizing downtime on weapons ranges to review key elements of unit domestic operation tactical standing operating procedures.
4. Learn from yourself. Time and other resource constraints in the National Guard require constant adaptation. This means building a resilient learning organization that routinely incorporates lessons learned. Identify a member of the unit to capture these lessons as they happen rather than trying to piece together a coherent product in the days and weeks afterward. Also remember to broaden the time frame for unit lessons learned beyond “actions on contact” to address required updates to unit standard operating procedures, frictions in the muster process and inefficiencies in the demobilization process. Units also should capture positive lessons in equal measure and determine ways to scale them. One example at the battalion level would be identifying a highly efficient, company-level domestic operations vehicle load plan, which could be applied to all adjacent units.
5. Focus on the “why.” The virtues and barriers to Mission Command have been discussed at length, and I won’t rehash them here. However, it is worth emphasizing one element of this approach in the current dynamic operating environment. I was an action officer at the Army National Guard Directorate of the National Guard Bureau in Arlington, Virginia, when the 2011 earthquake struck. This was obviously a surprise given the rarity of noticeable seismic activity in that part of the country. As a result, hundreds of thousands of people attempted to place simultaneous cellphone calls, clogging local cell networks and stopping communications. Minutes went by as shocked family members waited to hear from one another.
Despite the best efforts of dedicated professionals, a similar gridlock is possible in the chaotic environment in which members of the Guard operate. With unpredictable, fast-paced events come communication breakdowns: laterally and between echelons. As Gen. Mark Milley noted when he was Army chief of staff, all must prepare to operate independently at the lowest levels, responding as events require. This means understanding not just what their higher headquarters needs them to do, but why.
For Guard members supporting a flood response, this could mean exercising the initiative to shift city blocks, because manning a fixed point is less important than the purpose behind the task: maintaining the situational awareness to guide the evacuation of a civilian population. Leaders must inculcate this spirit through a hands-off approach in training by offering guidance and intent but leaving execution to lower-echelon leaders, even allowing them to fail when necessary to build adaptability.
6. Set conditions early. Finally, as with most things, early preparation is key. For domestic operations, there are many areas in which units can be ready when the time comes: building, maintaining and distributing a tactical standing operating procedure; routinely exercising calling trees; having unit staff conduct pattern analysis on natural disasters; conducting battle drills for specific scenarios to identify friction points early; using the same communications plan in training as in civil response missions; forging relationships with supported civil organizations; building domestic operations staff training into yearly training plans; studying lessons from other National Guard response missions around the country; being proactive on medical and dental readiness; creating civil response checklists for unit full-time support personnel; and, most importantly, creating the mindset that short-notice domestic operations are an expected factor of Guard life.
In business, corporations create a value proposition to articulate their niche in the marketplace. In 2021, the National Guard’s value proposition is front and center on television, computer and cellphone screens across the nation.
As a ready, resilient and responsive organization, the National Guard has repeatedly demonstrated its cost-effectiveness at the state and national level. No matter the mission, National Guard personnel have gone from school board meetings and family dinners to selflessly serve when needed.
National Guard leaders must reinvest the lessons of these experiences to care for soldiers and airmen while meeting the demands of a challenging operating environment.
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Lt. Col. John McRae commands the Minnesota National Guard’s 682nd Engineer Battalion, St. Cloud, and is a U.S. Army War College Distance Education Program student. Previously, he served as chief, Readiness Support Branch, Army National Guard Directorate, National Guard Bureau. He is an Iraq War veteran.