WASHINGTON — National Guard and Reserve forces remain inadequately equipped and unprepared to deal with a range of domestic disasters, particularly an attack from unconventional weapons, a congressional commission has concluded.
In a report Thursday, the panel said that policymakers in Congress and the Pentagon have been reluctant to acknowledge that the U.S. military remains the only institution that can respond quickly to natural and man-made disasters. That failure “places the nation at risk” because it has led to shortfalls in planning and readiness.
Reserve units have been stretched by repeated deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan, but the commission said the inadequacies are not solely the result of the wars. Overall, it said, the Pentagon has failed to provide adequate funding on the “faulty assumption” that the training for military operations overseas would suffice for domestic purposes as well.
The commission was set up by Congress in 2005 to examine the needs of the Guard and Reserve in the midst of their heavy deployment to war zones and issued its final report Thursday. The panel sounded a special alarm over the Guard’s ability to respond to an attack from weapons of mass destruction, saying forces are not trained sufficiently to deal with chemical, biological or nuclear strike because of inadequate funding.
“This is an appalling gap that places the nation and its citizens at greater risk,” the commission found.
The issue of National Guard readiness has been fraught with political tension since the Bush administration came under fire for its handling of Hurricane Katrina’s aftermath in 2005.
Several state governors have voiced concern that because of heavy use overseas, National Guard units have been unable to deal with natural disasters, such as last year’s tornadoes in the Midwest.
The Bush administration has insisted that sharing arrangements between states are adequate to meet any shortfalls. But the commission report was highly critical of the Pentagon’s spending plans for the Guard and reserves.
The Pentagon has more than doubled its spending in the past two years on equipment for the Guard and reserves, spending nearly $7 billion in 2006 out of a reserve budget of about $32 billion. But the commission said equipment needs alone require an additional $48 billion.
“The high operational use of reserve equipment in the current conflicts has degraded their readiness for both combat operations and domestic emergency response,” the report found.
The commission, headed by retired Marine Maj. Gen. Arnold L. Punaro, recommended changes in laws to ensure disaster response is a “core competency” of the U.S. military, equal in importance to fighting wars.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates has been receptive to the commission’s recommendations in the past, implementing most suggestions made in an interim report in March.
But Air Force Gen. Gene Renuart, head of the military command chiefly responsible for the defense of North America, insisted Thursday that the Pentagon has the capability to deal with attacks from weapons of mass destruction.