Schwarzenegger's National Guard Plan for Border Is Measured and Intelligent

Nearly one month ago, on May 14, President Bush ordered 6,000 National Guard troops to America’s 1,900-mile border with Mexico to bolster the Border Patrol.  While Bush is the commander in chief, his order isn’t the last word, as the National Guard is under state jurisdiction unless federalized.  This means that individual governors have a say in how or whether their National Guard forces participate in the President’s plan.  

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R.) was initially reluctant to accept the President’s mission, calling it “a Band-Aid solution.”  But 17 days later he approved a California National Guard role in the plan to better secure our southern border.  Examining the governor’s actions over these two-and-a-half weeks sheds light on both the border mission and Schwarzenegger’s growing effectiveness as California’s chief executive.

When Bush first announced the National Guard border deployment it appeared that he wanted Guard units to spend their 15 days of annual training in support of the mission.  This plan would certainly save money as Guard members typically perform a minimum of 15 days of federally funded active duty per year anyway, when not in Iraq, Afghanistan or Kosovo.  The flip side of a plan reliant on a series of 15-day border deployments is that it erodes military readiness when not done on a military base in areas void of any of the training support needed to perform weapons qualification or conduct maneuvers or other complex training.  

After conferring with California’s Adjutant General, Major Gen. William Wade, and military staff officers, Schwarzenegger readily grasped the negative impact on readiness that the President’s plan would have on the state’s Guard.  With 37 million residents living amongst a vast and varied geography, California has accounted for about half of America’s National Guard state call-ups over the years. California’s four “seasons” — flood, fire, earthquake and riot — keep its Guard busy.  Clearly, rotating California’s 20,000 Army and Air Guard members to the border for two-week stints would degrade military effectiveness, leaving the state less prepared for disaster and the Guard less able to contribute to the larger national defense mission as well.

Saying the President’s mission, “must not compromise the Guard’s emergency response,” Schwarzenegger drafted his own border deployment plan.  California would activate 1,100 troops, he decided.  Of these, about two-thirds would be longer-term “durational” soldiers composed of volunteers serving six to 12 months while the rest of the force will be composed of “rotational” soldiers performing their 15 days of annual active duty.  This plan preserves military readiness and military readiness translates directly into emergency response capability.

As for the military mission itself, what will it accomplish and how?

Under President’s plan, the 6,000 solders in “Operation Jumpstart” will stay on the border through 2008, by which time an additional 6,000 Border Patrol agents are to be hired, bringing that force to 18,300.  The Guard’s tasks include flying helicopters and manning outposts to watch the border, providing bilingual troops to act as translators, staffing communications nodes to cover the many radio dead spots along the rugged border, performing intelligence analysis, mapping and survey work, logistics support and medical services, as well as building fences, vehicle barriers and roads.  What the Guard won’t be doing is arresting illegal border crossers or detaining them.

So, does the mission make sense?  As a stopgap measure, yes.  Obviously the best way to secure the border is by making the serious investments in labor (Border Patrol) and capital (fencing and barriers) needed to secure it.  One way to begin to do that quickly is with military forces.  

Every set of National Guard eyes on the border frees up a Border Patrol agent to make an apprehension.  Surveillance and intelligence, what the military calls “force multipliers,” are invaluable, too, in that proper use of these skills allows Border Patrol agents on the ground to be vastly more effective.  This was confirmed in a June 5 news conference with Customs and Border Protection Border Patrol Chief David V. Aguilar, who said Guard personnel will be “relieving Border Patrol agents to get back to direct enforcement work in the field.”

Lastly, it may be instructive to look at two previous deployments to the Mexican border in the National Guard’s history.  

Because of increasing violence on the U.S.-Mexico border due to Mexican revolutionary unrest, President Woodrow Wilson mobilized the National Guard on June 18, 1916.  He did so without any provision of federal assistance, forcing the states to spend their own funds for weapons and equipment.  The Guard remained in the field against Francisco “Pancho” Villa and other Mexican irregulars and bandits through the end of January 1917.  A few months later America entered World War I during which National Guard units were considered to be the best Army forces fighting in France, due in large part to the extra training they received in the field during the Mexican campaign.

For the past 19 years up to the present, the National Guard has had, on a continual basis, about 450 personnel on the border in California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas conducting counter-drug missions in support of the Border Patrol, Customs, the Drug Enforcement Agency and other law enforcement arms.  These soldiers have distinguished themselves, providing a unique dimension to law enforcement’s capabilities.  This mission will continue and likely last beyond the new border deployment.

Schwarzenegger has stressed that, unlike the 1916 deployment, all costs will be “paid in full by the federal government.”  Further, in a separate executive order that was not part of his agreement with the federal government, Schwarzenegger has mandated that the California National Guard’s border mission will end no later than Dec. 31, 2008.

Schwarzenegger’s response to the federal National Guard border mission has been measured and intelligent.  Schwarzenegger has said that protecting our borders is the federal government’s responsibility, but, he also knows we need to do something to address the problem of our porous borders.  “It is not my preference to send the National Guard,” Schwarzenegger said, “but there’s an important need to protect the border.”  In contrast, Schwarzenegger’s Democrat opponent, State Treasurer Phil Angelides, flatly opposes any National Guard participation in the securing the border, saying Mexico and California should instead, “be good partners.”