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Leaders detail future of National Guard

Army Gen. Daniel Hokanson, chief, National Guard Bureau, and Air Force Senior Enlisted Advisor Tony L. Whitehead, the bureau's senior enlisted advisor, to the chief of the National Guard Bureau, Jan. 24, 2023. Photo credit: Master Sgt. Jim Greenhill

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The National Guard remains an integral part of U.S. military might, and it's changing to remain effective for the future, Army Gen. Daniel R. Hokanson, chief of the National Guard Bureau, said this week.

Hokanson and Senior Enlisted Advisor Tony L. Whitehead, the senior enlisted advisor to the chief of the National Guard Bureau, held a wide-ranging news conference on the challenges facing the National Guard and its 430,000 service members. 

The National Guard is the strategic reserve of the U.S. military. Guardsmen are ready today and must be ready for the future. They were among the forces who fought the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, but they also perform missions for state governors. They also have a mission on the U.S. border with Mexico. Guardsmen are called upon to help Americans in the aftermath of fire, flood, hurricanes, earthquakes and more. Thousands of National Guardsmen helped Americans during the on-going COVID-19 pandemic.

With an eye toward the future, Hokanson and Whitehead started examining "people" programs since everything really depends on the people of the Guard and their families. 

The general said about 60,000 National Guard soldiers and airmen have no medical coverage. "That's why the Health Care for Our Troops Act is on my radar," he said. The legislation would provide premium-free medical insurance for members of the National Guard and other reserve components.

"This the right thing to do for our service members and their families, who often bear undue financial and medical hardships as a result," he said. "Yes, there is a cost to this, but I believe the lost readiness costs are more than the price of that health care. The Health Care for Our Troops Act is ultimately the right thing to do, both morally and for the medical readiness of our force."

Hokanson is also adamant that guardsmen performing the same duties as their active-duty counterparts should get the same pay and benefits. "Just like them, we spend weeks, months, even years away from our families, but to be side-by-side performing the exact same mission and the same duties and not be treated the same is something that needs to be resolved," he said. "Duty status reform goes a long way to address this inequity, which is also vital to our recruiting and retention efforts." 

The Guard also has a role in readiness of forces far from U.S. shores. The Guard's State Partnership Program is in its 30th year. It partners state Guard units with foreign militaries. The most obvious example is California's long-term partnership with Ukraine. State units are partnered with more than 100 countries, and the Guard looks to expand it by 30 nations over the next decade.

The final challenge is modernizing the force. "We created a 25-year modernization road map for all our major weapons systems," Hokanson said. 

The Guard cannot show up to tomorrow's fights with yesterday's equipment. "We must be interoperable and have the same equipment whenever possible," he said. "On the Air Force size side, we have 25 fighter squadrons, and we need to keep all 25 fighter squadrons because our nation needs them. These squadrons need modernized fighters to provide the combat capability and strategic depth our nation needs to deter our adversaries." 

The Guard has been instrumental in helping Ukraine resist the Russian invasion. The California-Ukraine partnership reaches back to the founding of the Partnership for Peace effort following the break-up of the Soviet Union and dissolution of the Warsaw Pact. In 2014, after the first Russian invasion that occupied Crimea - Guardsmen worked "to identify those areas where (the Ukrainian military) felt that they could really improve to prepare themselves," the general said.

Hokanson and Whitehead said that last year, there were many who felt Russia would overwhelm its neighbor. But the training they received - especially the development of a professional noncommissioned officer corps - was instrumental in blunting Russia's thrust toward Ukraine's capital, Kyiv. 

"As our Guard units have rotated through since 2015 with the joint military training group (in) Ukraine, we've really focused on developing their noncommissioned officers, as well as a couple other areas that they, that they really wanted to work on," the general said. "Obviously, the greatest credit goes to the Ukrainian people and their forces for standing up for their own sovereignty and defending their homeland. But it was one of those things that we worked on, and we continue to work on, with Ukrainians right now. The key thing is (to work on the) areas that they ask us for support on and training. We really try and focus directly on that."

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