Print This Article The Wichita Eagle Back to web version
Thursday, March 27, 2014

National Guard deals with less equipment

BY DION LEFLER
The Wichita Eagle

When Kansas National Guard equipment was being shipped to the war in Iraq, Gov. Kathleen Sebelius warned that if a major disaster hit here, Guard troops wouldn't have enough equipment on hand.

The destruction of Greensburg by a tornado Friday night has stretched Guard resources thin, the governor said Monday.

"About 50 percent of our trucks are gone; we need trucks," she said in an interview with CNN. "We're missing Humvees; we're missing all kinds of equipment that can help us respond to this kind of emergency."

Rep. Jerry Moran, whose district includes Greensburg, said the availability of equipment for Kansas disasters has been a concern for several years.

Moran said he met Monday with Maj. Gen. Tod Bunting, the Adjutant General of the Kansas Guard.

Bunting told him "we have all the equipment we need at the moment," Moran said.

Moran said he also talked with officials of the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Pentagon and was assured that Kansas will get any equipment it needs to handle the disaster.

Col. Eric Peck of the Kansas Guard said the most pressing shortage is tractor-trailer-style trucks used for transporting heavy equipment, such as wheeled loaders that are used to clear debris from disaster sites.

Ordinarily, the Guard would have more than 30 such transports. It now has fewer than 15, he said.

Most of the heavy equipment needed in Greensburg is based at Guard armories in southeastern Kansas, with some in Wichita and Topeka.

The truck shortage won't stop the Guard from completing its missions, but it will take longer because fewer trucks means more trips, Peck said.

He said the Guard also is short on Humvees and medium tactical vehicles, which are similar to civilian cab-over trucks and used to transport people, equipment and supplies.

The Guard should have about 600 Humvees but has less than 400. It would usually have 170 medium tactical vehicles but has less than 30.

Because the tactical vehicles are among the Guard's most advanced equipment, "they're in very high demand overseas," Peck said. "We're soldiers too, and we want to give them the best equipment, but it does make it harder to do our job here."

The tactical vehicles are particularly useful in flood zones because they have very high ground clearance and aren't likely to get swamped in a few feet of water, Peck said.

In addition to responding to Greensburg, the Guard is working in flood zones in Saline and Shawnee counties. It expects to be called into more areas of flooding as river crests move downstream, he said.

The Guard has some tank transporters that could be used to carry emergency equipment, but those vehicles are extremely large and tall, so they can be operated only on a limited number of roads.

The problem didn't come without plenty of warning and worry from Sebelius.

In December 2005, she sent a letter to then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld pleading for the replacement of equipment that would be needed in a state emergency.

"We must be able to maintain a high level of readiness," she wrote, "because no one can know when disaster will strike."

In January 2006, she rode with President Bush to Manhattan where he delivered the Landon Lecture at Kansas State University. She talked to the President about several issues, including the Pentagon's failure to replace Guard equipment that has been armored and never will return from Iraq.

"We're dealing with it," was the President's reply.

At a Capitol Hill news conference in February, Sebelius said the reliance on Guard troops and equipment in Iraq was leaving the states vulnerable.

She was told by the Pentagon that Kansas could expect to regain two-thirds of the vehicles and equipment in about six years.

"That's a very inadequate response," she said at the time. "We don't have the equipment to keep our citizens secure."

Kansas has about 1,000 Guard troops serving in Iraq, Afghanistan and on the Mexican border.

In February, the governor's office estimated that 16 percent of the Guard's equipment, valued at $117 million, will not return to Kansas. Either wear and tear made it useless or it was needed by other troops.

A congressionally sponsored commission looking into military readiness reported last month that close to 90 percent of Guard units in this country were "not ready," primarily because of equipment shortages.

The report by the Commission on the National Guard and Reserves said the Pentagon was "not adequately equipping the National Guard for its domestic missions."

When they're not in Iraq or activated elsewhere under federal supervision, Guard units are under the command of the governors.

John Goheen, a spokesman for the National Guard Association of the U.S., said "the equipment shortage across the Guard hampers the Guard's ability to respond to a range of natural disasters."

The association is a nonpartisan group that represents Guard officers and lobbies for better equipment and training.

The Army has pledged to boost Guard spending by $23 billion though 2011, with further increases in subsequent years. Lt. Col. Mike Milord, a spokesman for the National Guard Bureau in the Department of Defense, said the goal is ensure that the Guard has 65 to 70 percent of its needed equipment by 2013.

Reach Dion Lefler at 316-268-6527.

Contributing: Jim Sullenger of the Eagle Topeka bureau and David Goldstein of the Eagle Washington bureau.

© 2007 Wichita Eagle and wire service sources. All Rights Reserved. http://www.kansas.com