WASHINGTON — The head of the National Guard warned Tuesday that units nationwide have less than half the equipment they need to deal with natural disasters, terrorist attacks and other threats at home.
Lt. Gen. H. Steven Blum told members of the House armed services subcommittee on readiness that guardsmen being deployed to Iraq and other foreign hot spots are adequately equipped but that Army National Guard units stateside have, on average, just 40% of their required equipment on hand.
That deficit cuts into the Guard's ability to respond to national emergencies and keep its "citizen soldiers" adequately trained for rapid deployment, he said.
"To respond here at home, you have to have people fully manned, fully trained and fully equipped," Blum testified. "If we don't have the equipment we need, the reaction time is slow, and time equals lives lost. Those lives are American lives."
Blum said it would cost taxpayers an additional $40 billion to bring Guard forces up to "an acceptable level of operational readiness."
Rep. Solomon P. Ortiz (D-Texas), who chaired the hearing, said such an "enormous shortfall ... is totally unacceptable."
"Congress wants to help," he said.
Blum's comments came on the heels of a report this month that found that increased reliance on the Guard at home and abroad was straining units and was likely to hurt recruitment efforts.
The report, by an independent congressionally mandated commission, said the current rate of deployments "is not sustainable." It cautioned that the "unacceptable" state of Guard equipment hindered the United States' ability to respond to foreign and domestic threats.
Republican and Democratic governors, meanwhile, have expressed concern that additional Guard deployments will add to the burden on units they say are already stretched and ill-equipped.
Lt. Col. Jon Siepmann, a spokesman for California's National Guard, said the state has about half of the equipment it needs overall but must contend with significantly smaller proportions of certain items, such as light and medium trucks, modern M4 carbine rifles and night-vision goggles. That means troops have to borrow equipment for training and in some cases go without until just before deploying.
This month, 600 Guard members from Southern California left to train in Mississippi before heading to Iraq, and 800 more are being called up to support President Bush's troop "surge." Units are also on the ground in Afghanistan, Kuwait and Kosovo.
Siepmann said he was confident that the Guard could respond to emergencies in the state but added that it would be in better shape if it had more equipment.
"In a major disaster," he said, "if you're missing 40% or 50% of one type of vehicle, it's going to have an impact."