The Army National Guard is working to meet the challenges of motivating a new generation to serve while modernizing the force after weathering one of the busiest periods in its recent history.
Called upon time after time to support the nation’s responses to floods, wildfires, storms, hurricanes, civil unrest and the COVID-19 pandemic, the National Guard stepped up during more than two years of overlapping missions, deferring some of its combat readiness to meet domestic operational requirements.
With demand for the National Guard back at a manageable pace, recruiting is in high gear, soldiers are catching up on education and leaders are moving out to modernize the capabilities of the Army’s second-largest component.
Lt. Gen. Jon Jensen, the 22nd director of the Army National Guard, said the sustained pace of operations, brought on chiefly by the response to the pandemic, caused operational churn and a nosedive in the contact the National Guard enjoys with its local communities. Jensen became director of the Army National Guard in August 2020.
“There was an impact on readiness during [the pandemic], so we’re recapturing capabilities, and we’re on a path to grow new capabilities,” Jensen said, calling the moment and the work ahead “a transition point.”
With fewer than 300 National Guard soldiers on duty as of September supporting the pandemic response in their own states, compared with the 16,000 soldiers who were on the pandemic mission in December across multiple states, the strain has eased, he said.
“We’ve been at this for a while,” Jensen said of the pandemic response, pointing out that state governments have since created their own capacity for dealing with COVID-19. “Many of the things that we were doing, [we] no longer need to do. You had to go somewhere to get a COVID test. Well, now you don’t have to go any farther than your drugstore.”
Return to Normalcy
Except for units that are mobilizing, training and deploying on rotational missions, Jensen said most National Guard soldiers are back to the component’s traditional requirement of training one weekend a month and two weeks a year.
Jensen acknowledged, though, that the National Guard could be called upon to augment the active-duty force as it struggles to attract new recruits and shrinks its troop strength.
“I think that’s the concern. As our Army is getting smaller, the demand on the Army is not getting smaller. In many ways, it’s increasing,” Jensen said. “So, what we potentially could see is … if the demand remains the same or grows, and the Army gets smaller, that’s going to increase the [operational] tempo inside our formations.”
In its fiscal 2023 budget request, the Regular Army reduced its troop level to 473,000, which is 12,000 fewer soldiers than authorized for fiscal 2022. Declaring in a mid-July memo that the Army is in “a war for talent,” Army Secretary Christine Wormuth and Army Chief of Staff Gen. James McConville laid out grim projections that could see the Army’s end strength sink to 445,000 troops by the end of fiscal 2023.
With a smaller active-duty force, Jensen said, “every unit counts, every soldier counts, and readiness counts, and it all starts with filling in our [National Guard] formations.”
Meeting the Guard’s fiscal 2022 end strength goal of 336,000 was a priority for Jensen. “We’re going to continue to work it every day that I am the director, whether we’re on mission, not on mission, ahead of mission,” he said.
The National Guard faces the same recruiting hurdles as the Regular Army—a low national unemployment rate, competition from the private sector, the ripple effect of the pandemic and a lack of willingness among young people to serve.
“We’re not having as good a year this year as we were last year where we exceeded our end strength,” Jensen said on Aug. 29. “This year, we’re probably going to fall a little short of that.”
Pointing to the National Guard’s ability to leverage its community relationships in 54 states, territories and the District of Columbia, Jensen predicted that the Army National Guard will be “the first component and the first service that comes out of the recruiting dip.”
Making the Case
Still, he said, a different approach is needed to make Army service more appealing to young people.
The challenge has been “our inability to attract the attention of younger men and women right now,” he said. “It’s not that [they] don’t have a propensity to serve, because I see them very active in their local communities. We just have to make our case in our argument why serving in the Army National Guard is important.”
National Guard soldiers who had to defer their professional military education because of the high operational tempo during the pandemic are catching up at schools managed by the National Guard and the Regular Army. Starting Oct. 1, some of those soldiers deployed to Kuwait will be able to complete NCO professional development courses in-country with a mix of online work and in-person instruction by a small cadre of instructors who will travel to them.
“What we’re trying to do is maximize that time period when you’re mobilized,” Jensen said. “In many cases, when a soldier deploys, they put a school off.”
Expressing his confidence that “our organizations will be ready” if needed, Jensen said the Army National Guard is well into a plan that reorganizes it from a brigade-centric force into one that’s focused on the division. This transition will align it more closely with the Regular Army and anticipates the transformation of some combat capabilities to meet the Army’s modernization goals.
While the move to division-centric formations is “going exceptionally well,” Jensen said, the National Guard is “waiting on the Army to make some force structure decisions in terms of how certain organizations are going to look.”
As an example, Jensen said the Army is “looking at bringing back division-level cavalry or reconnaissance units,” a decision that would impact the National Guard’s reorganization plans.
“We’re still kind of in a pause waiting for some of these decisions to be made,” he said, explaining that the Army’s 2014 decision to bring back division artillery is already coming into play.
“Extended Range [Cannon] Artillery is coming to the National Guard,” Jensen said. “We’re phasing that in.” It means the Guard’s self-propelled artillery capability will be converted to long-range precision fires, fulfilling one of the Army’s six modernization priorities.
It’s an important transition that Jensen said will help seal the National Guard’s inclusion in the Army’s broad modernization strategy, but it also could bring problems if it moves too quickly.
“We think potentially it could be very disruptive, much like in the early 2000s when we went from division-centric to brigade-centric” formations, Jensen said. “It was very disruptive in the Guard, and every state was touched pretty dramatically. We are taking a little bit slower approach to this because this is a full modernization effort. It’s going to take more than three or four years.”
Modernizing along with the Regular Army, Jensen noted, goes beyond reorganizing a unit to accommodate new capabilities. It also helps reassure soldiers that as members of the Army National Guard, they will remain relevant to the Total Army.
Jensen said he has detected among soldiers “a little bit of stress out there” on the modernization issue. Many soldiers have told him that “they are afraid that their unit’s going to be left behind, and they’re not going to be modernized, therefore they’re no longer relevant,” Jensen said.
Jensen said he also detects a sense that junior leaders, warrant officers and NCOs “still want to contribute to the Army as part of a mobilization” should their units be called upon to augment the Regular Army, validating the Army National Guard’s ultimate relevance to the total force.
Having pivoted from almost nonstop operations since 2020, today’s Army National Guard is like a triathlete who is “coming out of the water,” Jensen said.
“You’re about to get on the bike, so you’ve got to get the wetsuit off, you’ve got to get your bike shorts on, and then you’re going to get on the bike, and you’re going to do that until it’s time to run,” he said. “I think that is where we are right now, where we’re coming out of the water, and we’re transitioning to the next key event for our organizations.”