Gates: Guard connects military, American people

  • Published
  • By Army Staff Sgt. Jim Greenhill
  • National Guard Bureau
The National Guard is one of the best connections between the armed forces and the public, the secretary of defense said Wednesday.

"Our best connection to the American people and to communities is in fact the reserve component - the National Guard and the Reserves," Robert M. Gates told an audience at Maxwell Air Force Base in Alabama. "The fact that they have been turned into an operational reserve and have served in Iraq and Afghanistan and go back to their communities ... has had a huge impact. ...

"All you have to do is read about what happens in towns and cities when our fallen come home, where the whole town turns out ... with flags and lining the streets and so on."

Gates was responding to a question that suggested that Americans are more likely to know who won "American Idol" than who earned the Medal of Honor.

Some people were concerned that an all-volunteer force might create an elite force unconnected to the country, Gates said. But, in fact, "the all-volunteer force is the best military the United States has ever had" - and the National Guard is a vital link between men and women in uniform and civilians.

Calling the all-volunteer force "America's greatest strategic asset," Gates talked about changes in the direction of the Department of Defense.

"Starting with the roll out of the Iraq surge, my overriding priority has been getting troops at the front everything they need to fight, to win and to survive, while making sure that they and their families are properly cared for when they return," Gates said.

Among key changes Gates cited: Fixing outpatient care, getting better armored vehicles and sending more intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capability into theater.

Discussing his proposed fiscal year 2010 Department of Defense budget with Air War College students, Gates said that, "While the military has made great strides in operating jointly over the last two decades, procurement remains overwhelmingly service-centric. ... It's so important to look across the services for joint procurement and joint capability so that a single service doesn't bear the full burden of completing a mission that actually will involve all of the services."

Gates also stressed the importance of building partnership capacity with other countries.
"One of the major themes in the Department of Defense ... that is codified in my ... budget recommendations - and probably will be as well in the [Quadrennial Defense Review] and in a number of plans that have been put forward by the combatant commanders - is how do we build partnership capacity?" Gates said.

A key difference between dealing with piracy in Southeast Asia and dealing with it in Somalia has been partnership capacity, Gates said.

"There was a huge piracy problem in the Strait of Malacca and hijackings were almost as frequent as they are now off of Somalia," Gates said. But partnerships with other governments had significantly reduced piracy there, he said.

"The problem is that in the Somalia area, we don't have governments like we had in Southeast Asia to be able to deal with the problem," he said. "That's what makes Somalia a particularly difficult issue."

Building partnership capacity is a key goal of the National Security Strategy.

The National Guard contributes to building partnership capacity through its State Partnership Program, which pairs 61 countries worldwide with states and territories.

State Partnership Program activities include exchanges by high-level military and civilian leaders. Military-to-military contacts bring state National Guard members together with foreign troops. Military-to-civilian activities focus on homeland defense, homeland security and military support to civilian authorities, including disaster preparedness, emergency response and consequence management.

The partnerships can address a wide variety of shared security issues, including border security and migration, combat medical training, computer and financial crime, defeating improvised explosive devices, disaster response, humanitarian assistance, illegal drugs, military support to civilian authorities, peacekeeping operations, port security and weapons proliferation.

Civilian security exchanges often grow from the State Partnership Program, with increased contacts between U.S. and foreign businesses, educators, farmers, doctors, lawyers and scientists.

Partnerships are created through discussions among countries, defense ministers, the U.S. ambassador, regional combatant commanders, adjutants general, governors and the chief of the National Guard Bureau, who administers the program.

The State Partnership Program started in the Baltic region of Europe in 1993 after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and focused on matching U.S. states with former Soviet satellite nations. The program later expanded to South and Central America. Central Asia, the Middle East, the Pacific and Africa came next.

No State Partnership Program relationship has ended and none has failed since its inception 16 years ago.