Alaska National Guard Hit "Crisis Level"

KULIS AIR NATIONAL GUARD BASE, Alaska -- In the early morning hours of Sept. 1, 2008, Alaska Air National Guardsmen from the 176th Logistics Readiness Squadron maneuver an HH-60 Pave Hawk helicopter onto the loading ramp of a C-17 strategic airlift jet. The helicopter is one of two the Alaska Air National Guard?s 176th Wing is deploying to the Gulf Coast region to support possible search-and-rescue operations expected in the wake of Hurricane Gustav. Approximately 30 wing members have deployed to the region as well. Alaska Air National Guard photo by Lt Col Tim O'Brien.
Lt. Col. Tim OBrien, Ak. ANG
The Alaska National Guard, which Republicans are pointing to as an important national-security credential for vice presidential choice Sarah Palin, has personnel shortages that make its aviation units the most poorly staffed in the nation.

Just six months ago, Air Force Maj. Gen. Craig Campbell, the Alaska Guard's top officer, warned in an internal memo that "missions are at risk." The lack of qualified airmen, Campbell said, "has reached a crisis level."

The situation has improved since the March 1 memo was written, Campbell said Wednesday in a telephone interview with The Associated Press - but not enough to eliminate his concern that shortages will result in the "burnout" of troops the Guard already has. That could result in missions and equipment being moved out of Alaska.

Campbell installed a new policy that could stop officers from advancing unless they show success at bringing in new members and retaining existing troops.

Campbell is due to receive a third star on Sunday - a promotion approved by Palin, who has authority over the Alaska National Guard. He described Palin as very supportive of the Guard, but said she gives him latitude to manage the force. Governors typically do not have a direct role in day-to-day operations.

Campbell's March 1 memo, sent to Brig. Gen. Deborah McManus, his deputy in charge of Alaska's Air Guard, was posted on a Web site run by Andrew Halcro, a Republican who ran against Palin as an independent in the 2006 Alaska governor's race.

The memo called the low Air Guard personnel levels a "leadership issue" and spelled out a more aggressive recruiting and retention program. As part of that program, Campbell said he would personally approve promotions for colonels, lieutenant colonels and chief master sergeants.

After the no advancement for officers directive was issued and the promotion for Campbell announced, an anonymous Guardsman wrote to Halcro, criticizing the "hypocrisy" of the move.

"The intent [of the no advancement policy] is to 'motivate' these senior leaders to recruit more new people into the ANG. This policy has frozen the advancement of some very deserving individuals who have already earned the right to be promoted. As the Adjutant General, he has the right to institute any plan he wishes. This edict was tolerated by our loyal Guardsmen until the hypocrisy became overwhelming.

"General Campbell's promotion will be a 'state' promotion. He will be a three-star general only while on State business. In a very rank-conscious environment, this distinction will not be lost on the other Flag Officers. He will look the part of a three-star general but will not be regarded as one by the very people he needs to work with and influence."

In a response also posted on Halcro's site, Campbell said that several officers have been promoted, due to what he called "not only high professional competence in their technical career field, but also an ability and understanding of the responsibilities necessary to hold the higher rank."

On the recruiting program, Campbell said he was focusing on these ranks so they would understand "their significant responsibility for improving the current manpower problem."

He also said the Alaska Air Guard has only 84 percent of its assigned positions filled, the lowest rating in the country. There are only eight other states below 90 percent. Campbell said the 84 percent rating is higher than the 81 percent he reported in the March memo.

He also noted that recruiting and retention within the Alaska Air National Guard was only part of the larger responsibilities of the Adjutant General.

Campbell pointed out that his promotion is a states' rights issue. Following Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Campbell said, governors around the country became concerned the president could call Guard members to federal service for a state emergency without the governor's consent. That raised the possibility the troops would not be controlled by the governor.

"The National Guard works for the Governor and in Alaska that is a very essential point in our relationships with the federal government," Campbell wrote.

Referring to getting his third star, Campbell told the AP his promotion comes with no extra pay or benefits and reflects his broader stewardship of Alaska's Department of Military and Veteran Affairs, of which the National Guard is one part. Campbell earns about $127,000 annually.

The Air Guard's problems, while important in Alaska, aren't a major national defense issue. The Alaska Air Guard's 176th Wing is about 300 members short of the 1,598 airmen it is authorized to have, according to Campbell's office. Its other primary wing, the 168th, has 641 airmen, about 70 fewer than it needs.

Overall, the Alaska National Guard has about 3,800 troops in its air and ground units.

Yet the relatively small numbers are also reminders that Republicans may be stretching their claims that Palin is qualified to be a heartbeat away from running the world's most powerful military.

In a Wednesday interview with ABC News, Republican presidential candidate John McCain said Palin "has been in charge and she has had national security as one of her primary responsibilities."

Palin's lack of stature in national and international circles is sure to be a recurring theme for Democrats as the presidential campaigns move forward.

The National Guard is a reserve military force made up of state units that serve as part of the first-line defense for the United States.

It can be called up for active duty by the state governors or the U.S. military. It often helps respond to domestic emergencies and disasters such as hurricanes, floods, and earthquakes.

Members of the Alaska Army and Air Guard have been sent to Iraq, Afghanistan, the Horn of Africa and other overseas locations before and since Palin was sworn in as governor in December 2006. They've handled duties ranging from training the Afghan National Army to communications support. When on these federal missions, National Guard troops are under the command of the Defense Department and not their governors.

In July 2007, Palin visited Alaska Guard members serving in Kuwait.

Nationwide, the Army National Guard has 361,151 soldiers, 10,000 more than its planned level, according to the National Guard Bureau in Washington. The Air National Guard has 106,643 airmen, just under its approved strength of 106,700.