Ready for the Warfight: Army National Guard Trains to Respond at Home and Abroad
The Army National Guard’s capabilities “exist for our warfight,” so soldiers must be deployable, maintain their equipment and make sure their skills are interoperable with the Regular Army, says Lt. Gen. Daniel R. Hokanson, who became director of the Army’s second-largest component over the summer.
After almost two decades of counterinsurgency operations in which the Army National Guard became more integrated than ever with the Regular Army, a near-peer fight would test the Guard’s readiness on a harsher battlefield.
While acknowledging the Guard’s more familiar role of taking the lead in domestic disasters, Hokanson said that represents a fraction of the component’s mission. He asserted that the priority, and his job, is to “make sure we’re relevant to the Army” and ready to fight.
“I have to remind folks all the time [that] we exist because of our warfight. That’s why we’re here,” said Hokanson, who was sworn in as Army National Guard director on June 21. “It’s because we exist for our warfight that we happen to have equipment, training and personnel that can easily be adapted to a domestic response. But we don’t exist for that. We train to the most complex problem so anything short of that is a little bit easier.”
Strength of Civilian Skills
With eight division headquarters, 97 brigades that include 27 combat arms formations, two Special Forces groups, and one of the Army’s six new security force assistance brigades currently being stood up, the Army National Guard represents 39% of the Army’s operational forces. More than 90% of its funding comes from the Regular Army, he said.
Hokanson predicted that the strength of the civilian skills Army National Guard soldiers have always brought to the fight will become even more of an asset as the Army’s talent management database takes shape under the new Integrated Personnel and Pay System-Army. The system aims to more easily identify additional skills across the force, such as language or vocational skills, that before were not officially noted.
In deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan, Hokanson recalled leveraging the skills of transportation and law enforcement professionals, for example, who developed systems not readily trained in the Army that became essential for operations downrange.
The new database system, he said, “just opens up a whole new door of talent management because now [commanders] can query the system and in a matter of, hopefully, seconds, they can determine who has [a] unique capability.”
As an essential operational part of the Army’s combat force, the Army National Guard is focused on making sure individual soldiers and units remain ready and deployable, Hokanson said.
This means ensuring every soldier is physically fit and has checked the block on required medical and dental checkups. It also means making sure soldiers have worked through the needs of their employers, schools and families far enough in advance so they can plan for the soldier’s absence.
Staying ready also means keeping older equipment “usable and lethal” and staying up to speed while the Army modernizes, Hokanson said. As the Army works on developing and fielding equipment identified as priorities for modernization over the next few years, Hokanson said it will trickle down to the units that need it for imminent deployments, including the Army National Guard.
“If you look at how much the Guard is deployed today and how we’re such a part of the operational force, that’s really going to require doing the same for the Guard units as well,” Hokanson said, explaining that equipment fielding “won’t be one for one.” Rather, it will be up to Army senior leadership to determine when Guard formations begin to modernize.
In the meantime, readiness will be predicated on the Guard’s ability to sustain its legacy equipment, as well as its ability to remain interoperable on the battlefield with the active Army, partners and allies.
“I have to make sure that as parts of the Army modernize, that we can all talk to each other, communicate on the battlefield and work together,” he said. “We can’t all modernize at the same time. That’s just not physically possible.”
Hokanson pointed to older versions of the M1 Abrams tank as an example. The tanks have been used sparingly over the past 18 years, so the pipeline for spare parts all but dried up for armor units. Now that the Army National Guard’s armor formations are rolling more regularly through the combat training centers, the supply is once again ramping up.
“The demand for parts is not where it would normally have been,” Hokanson said. Introducing the demand for those repair parts has bumped up the level of readiness. “As we utilize those tanks more and more at the National Training Center [at Fort Irwin, California], we’re reestablishing the demand for those repair parts.”
Recruiting the Force
Over the past two years, close to 10% of the Army National Guard’s force of more than 332,000 was deployed in support of operations around the world, and 10% of the force is employed full-time. Some 300 soldiers are deployed on rotations in Alaska and California every day to man the Ground-Based Midcourse Defense, an antiballistic missile interception system.
The Army National Guard’s end strength goal of 335,500 for fiscal 2019 was still short by about 3,500 at the beginning of August, Hokanson said, pointing out at the time that “we still have two months left” until the end of the fiscal year and he was confident “we’re doing anything and everything we can.”
The addition of more recruiters in the past year has helped recruiting, but it hasn’t regained all the speed it had before the Budget Control Act of 2011, which saw end strength numbers across the military gradually decline.
“It’s a challenge across the board. We usually enlist soldiers for a six-year term, and if you go back three or four years ago when we were drawing down, those folks that would have enlisted for six years didn’t enlist because we were downsizing. Now we’re just getting back to where we’re really having an impact,” he said.
The challenge is exacerbated by the shrinking pool of potential recruits brought about by a strong economy, physical or mental inability to meet Army standards, and lack of willingness among the eligible demographic to serve. Hokanson believes the Army National Guard, while somewhat in competition for the same pool of potential soldiers as the Regular Army and U.S. Army Reserve, attracts a specific type of recruit.
“The soldiers we’re after want to stay in their communities, they want their civilian career, but they also want to serve,” he said.
An uptick in training has been felt by the entire Guard force, most notably with the higher number of rotations at the National Training Center and the Joint Readiness Training Center at Fort Polk, Louisiana. Hokanson said the experience gained there is invaluable, and it also gives soldiers an opportunity to do what they joined to do.
Out and About
In his first months on the job, Hokanson took every opportunity to get out of his headquarters office in Arlington, Virginia, to circulate among soldiers and meet with families. At the combat training centers and in meetings with adjutants general, he confirmed what he knows about what motivates soldiers to keep serving in the National Guard.
On a summer visit to see training at Fort Pickett, Virginia, with then-Vice Chief of Staff of the Army Gen. James C. McConville, he recalled, soldiers with the Virginia National Guard’s 116th Infantry Brigade Combat Team told the generals that they had joined the National Guard to fight and expected to deploy to use the training they’d received. “Every single group said they wanted to deploy,” Hokanson said.
But he’s mindful that, in addition to giving them training opportunities and deployments, Army National Guard soldiers can be retained after their first or second enlistments with incentives such as bonuses and health care coverage that help them and their families.
“Also, we want to work with the Army and the Army Reserve if they have soldiers that are departing their formations because maybe they want to go home and take care of a family member in Ohio or Oregon where there’s no active-duty military bases,” he said. “We want to give them that opportunity to continue to serve their country.”
Having served as adjutant general of the Oregon National Guard, deputy commander of the U.S. Northern Command and vice chief of the National Guard Bureau before taking the top job at the Army National Guard, Hokanson is no stranger to the National Guard life.
Commissioned as a second lieutenant in the aviation branch after graduating from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York, in 1986, Hokanson served on active duty and transitioned to the Army National Guard in 1995 after a short stint in the Army Reserve that same year.
As he has made the rounds since taking the reins at the Army National Guard, Hokanson credited his wife, Kelly, who has been with him since he was a lieutenant, with gathering the most insightful feedback from family members of Army National Guard soldiers.
“When I go places and talk to soldiers, I kind of get what they want me to hear. But when my wife Kelly goes, the spouses don’t hold back,” he said. He explained that it speaks to a National Guard norm that the Guard recruits soldiers but retains families.
The two most pressing issues to have arisen so far are medical care in places where Tricare is not available, and predictability about when soldiers will deploy so families can prepare financially and emotionally.
“Families are a lot of the biggest reason why folks stay in or get out. When [Kelly] meets with the spouses, they’re very candid, and that’s some of the best feedback I get,” Hokanson said.