WASHINGTON -- The National Guard's scramble to bring aid and order to New Orleans and the Gulf Coast is hamstrung by the fact that units across the country have, on average, half their usual amount of equipment -- helicopters, Humvees, trucks, and weapons -- on hand because much of it has been siphoned off to fight the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, according to military officials and security specialists.
The equipment the Guard needs to help in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina is in shorter supply because the gear is in use in combat zones, is battle-damaged, or has been loaned to cover gaps in other units, the officials said. The National Guard Bureau estimates that its nationwide equipment availability rate is 35 percent, about half the normal level, according to Pentagon statistics.
''In the four years since 9/11 that we have been at war, equipment has been beaten up, blown up, or simply left behind," said John Goheen of the National Guard Association of the United States. ''States have had to borrow equipment and make do with a lot less equipment. We are short literally thousands of Humvees."
Meanwhile, in Louisiana and Mississippi, the states hit hardest by the hurricane, up to 40 percent of their National Guard troops are on active duty in Iraq. As a result, Guard commanders responding to the storm's havoc have been forced to look further afield for military police and other National Guard units and equipment from states as far away as Maryland, stealing precious time from the relief efforts.
Guard commanders, however, insist that their national network of state militias -- the only US forces authorized to enforce the law when local authorities are overwhelmed -- has more than enough forces to respond to the devastation caused by Katrina, one of the worst natural disasters in US history. Of the estimated 400,000 members of the National Guard, about 175,000 have been called to active duty to support the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the commanders said. That leaves plenty of manpower nationwide to respond to the chaos and misery along the Gulf Coast.
''Even though National Guard forces have been heavily engaged in the global war on terrorism, nearly 124,000 troops were available for duty in the 17 states along the storm's projected path," the National Guard Bureau said in a statement. ''That averages to 78 percent of those states' total Guard strength. Tens of thousands could be drawn from the rest of the nation."
Indeed, the top officer in charge of military relief efforts said yesterday that as many as 30,000 National Guard troops from across the nation will arrive in Mississippi and Louisiana in the coming days. About 24,000 of those will be on the ground in the Gulf Coast within the next three days, Army Lieutenant General Russel Honore told reporters yesterday in a telephone interview from the Pentagon. More than 4,000 will get to New Orleans by Sunday to try to bring order to the streets and rescue people still stranded.
''We continue to build our capability," Honore said. ''It's a trying situation at best, and the enormity of the task is significant."
But the strain on the Guard over the last four years has been unprecedented. The force has been relied upon as never before -- to conduct overseas combat missions, contribute to homeland security, and simultaneously fulfill its traditional obligation of domestic disaster relief.
More than a third of the 135,000 US troops in Iraq are National Guard members. Of the US casualties there, more than half were either National Guard or military reserve forces. Many who signed up for part-time Guard duty are now serving full time. Some have served multiple tours in Iraq or Afghanistan since Sept. 11, 2001 -- in some cases, in between short-term shifts patrolling airports, helping to fight wildfires, or supporting other crisis missions.
The Maryland National Guard's 115th Military Police Battalion, for example, has been on active duty for more than 24 months since September 2001 and has been deployed three times, including securing the Pentagon crash site and providing security in Iraq. About 100 of its members headed to Mississippi yesterday to provide security in the aftermath of the hurricane.
While officials said that Louisiana and Mississippi would need help from out-of-state Guard units even if their home militias were still there, the majority of the units that are coming to the Gulf Coast will take far longer to get to the disaster scene.
Delay, however, could prove critical. Frank Carlucci, a former secretary of defense tapped by President Nixon to coordinate relief efforts after Hurricane Agnes battered the Northeast in 1972, said yesterday that National Guard forces are most effective in the initial shock of a catastrophe.
''You only need the Guard in the early days to restore law and order," he said.
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