MARCH 22, 2016, ARLINGTON, Va. – When Soldiers with the Minnesota Army National Guard’s 34th Combat Aviation Brigade departed for a yearlong deployment to Kuwait in May 2014, for many, it wasn’t their first deployment. Some had served in Iraq, others in Afghanistan and Kosovo.
Once in Kuwait they quickly settled into flying cargo and troops between bases, as well as other security and general support aviation missions.
Four months later, their mission changed dramatically.
To address the rise of Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, attacks at numerous locations throughout Iraq, elements of the brigade were shifted to forward locations to fly combat missions in direct support of Iraqi, U.S. and British forces.
The brigade’s ability to quickly and adeptly transition from flying routine cargo missions to flying rapidly changing combat missions represents just one way the Guard is engaged in combat operations, said National Guard leaders, adding the unit’s ability to do that was a result of experience, modern equipment, extensive training and sufficient resources.
“With nearly 780,000 individual overseas mobilizations since 9/11, the National Guard has proven, time and again, its readiness and warfighting capabilities,” said Army Gen. Frank Grass, the chief of the National Guard Bureau. That includes deployments conducting complex combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as other missions in Kuwait, the Sinai and numerous locations around the globe.
That role as an operational force differs from how many viewed the Guard’s combat role in the past, said Christopher Swadener, the associate director of air operations at the Air National Guard Readiness Center.
“The Air National Guard, much like the Army Guard, used to be thought of as a strategic reserve,” he said, adding the Guard’s combat capability was often viewed as a backup to the active component, rather than as a frontline partner.
That, too, has changed dramatically.
“We participate in every mission set,” said Swadener, of both the Air and Army Guard. “I’m not sure you could find anything we don’t participate in. We’re doing it all, in every theater simultaneously.”
That’s something that shows in the real-world experience many in the Guard bring with them. According to Guard officials, nearly half of those currently serving in the Guard have combat experience.
Soldiers and Airmen in the Guard have conducted missions from aerial refueling and close-air support for ground troops to convoy security operations, presence and security patrols – the full spectrum of combat operations, said Grass.
More than 8,300 Soldiers from the Army Guard supported operations in Afghanistan in fiscal year 2015 alone, while the Air Guard supported more than 9,000 deployment requirements to 56 countries on every continent, said Guard officials.
When operations in Iraq and Afghanistan were at a high point, Guard members were deployed in higher numbers.
“We were in the fight and we were in deep,” said Swadener of the Air Guard. “We were deploying 25,000-plus people a year and cycling through different places. We were definitely engaged.”
For many in those units, it’s all simply part of the job.
“A lot of those in the Air Guard have the expectation that they’re going to deploy,” said Swadener, adding the Air Guard contains roughly one-third of the combat power of the Air Force.
“We’re inseparable in what we bring in terms of experience, in terms of stability with mission sets and maturity,” Swadener said. “It has now become the culture. The Air Force just can’t afford to not have us involved.”
The Army Guard is equally as inseparable from Army operations. According to the Army, the Army Guard contains roughly 40 percent of the Army’s combat capability, including 43 percent of the Army’s manned and unmanned aircraft.
“Simply stated, the Army National Guard plays an essential role in our Army’s ability to go to war or engage in sustained operations,” said Army Lt. Gen. Timothy Kadavy, the director of the Army Guard.
While large-scale deployments — such as those seen during the height of operations in Iraq and Afghanistan — have been down throughout the services, the Guard has continued to deploy as part of current operations and has played a role in multiple worldwide training events and annual exercises.
Last year saw more than 13,000 Army Guard Soldiers support combatant command exercises and engagements, including training events in Africa, Europe and the Pacific. Air Guard members participated as well, providing fighter, airlift and aerial refueling capabilities for many of those exercises.
Those training opportunities often included partnerships developed through the Guard’s State Partnership Program, which links National Guard elements with partner nations worldwide.
“Our State Partnership Program — linking (the) National Guard with the armed forces of a partner country in a cooperative, mutually beneficial relationship — is an outstandingly successful example of the wisdom of partnerships,” said Grass.
The 23-year-old program currently includes 76 partnerships. Guard units have also taken part in nearly 80 deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan with their SPP partners, said Grass. Many of those partner countries, Grass added, have transitioned from security consumers to security providers.
To further maintain that combat edge, more than 70 Army Guard units honed their combat skills in 2015 in training exercises at the National Training Center at Fort Irwin, Calif., and other training venues using full-scale immersion in sustained, realistic, multi-echelon combat scenarios designed to build proficiency and mission readiness.
“Everything we do in the Army National Guard is focused toward building and sustaining readiness,” said Kadavy. “Reducing the time it takes for Soldiers and units to be ready for deployment is the primary concern for all Army National Guard leaders and is a goal toward which we are always focused.”
For some Guard members, however, taking part in combat missions means staying at home station.
“The Air National Guard has kept its fighter missions,” said Swadener. “It’s kept its aerial refueling and airlift missions, but now it’s gotten heavily into flying remotely piloted aircraft.”
That’s been a big change.
“That spectrum of the Air Guard has changed dramatically,” said Swadener. “You could now have a home station Air National Guard unit in, say, Terre Haute, Indiana, yet it is doing work overseas. We just hadn’t done that before.”
Additionally, Air Guard members have also provided intelligence analysis at home station in support of combat operations overseas, said Swadener.
While Guard members continue to deploy worldwide, they also provide training to ensure others are just as mission-ready.
The Air Guard-run Advanced Airlift Tactics Training Center in St. Joseph, Missouri, teaches students from throughout the Air Force and allied countries aspects of planning and employment of mobility aircraft and other tactics, techniques and procedures related to moving people, supplies and cargo via airlift.
Meanwhile, the Vermont Army National Guard runs the Army Mountain Warfare School, the Army’s only mountain warfare training center and the Army’s executive agency for military mountaineering. The Army National Guard also runs the Warrior Training Center at Fort Benning, Georgia, where more than 5,000 Soldiers from all Army components trained in FY15. Soldiers from the WTC run the Air Assault, Rappel Master and Pre-Ranger Courses as well as provide a variety of other tactical, combat and master fitness training.
Continued training, coupled with real-world combat missions, is the way ahead to maintain the operational capability of the Guard, Kadavy said.
“For the Army National Guard, a key component of leader development is experience in real-world deployments and realistic collective training,” he said. “This is a critical reason why consistent utilization, as well as planned rotations within the Army’s sustainable readiness process, are essential to Army National Guard readiness.”
That’s similar in the Air Guard, said Swadener.
“The Air National Guard, given the training, task and the mobilization authority to accompany it, can support operations for the long term,” he said.
Much of that simply comes down to those that make up the force.
“There are a lot of people that talk about the ‘Greatest Generation’ – the World War II folks,” Swadener said. “Not to take anything away from them, but we’ve got some great people out there now doing some great things.”