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(01-31) 08:02 PST WASHINGTON (AP) --
The U.S. military isn't ready for a catastrophic attack on the country, and National Guard forces don't have the equipment or training they need for the job, according to a report.
Even fewer Army National Guard units are combat-ready today than were nearly a year ago when the Commission on the National Guard and Reserves determined that 88 percent of the units were not prepared for the fight, the panel says in a new report released Thursday.
The independent commission is charged by Congress to recommend changes in law and policy concerning the Guard and Reserves.
The commission's 400-page report concludes that the nation "does not have sufficient trained, ready forces available" to respond to a chemical, biological or nuclear weapons incident, "an appalling gap that places the nation and its citizens at greater risk."
"Right now we don't have the forces we need, we don't have them trained, we don't have the equipment," commission Chairman Arnold Punaro said in an interview with The Associated Press. "Even though there is a lot going on in this area, we need to do a lot more. ... There's a lot of things in the pipeline, but in the world we live in — you're either ready or you're not."
In response, Air Force Gen. Gene Renuart, chief of U.S. Northern command, said the Pentagon is putting together a specialized military team that would be designed to respond to such catastrophic events.
"The capability for the Defense Department to respond to a chemical, biological event exists now," Renuart told the AP. "It, today, is not as robust as we would like because of the demand on the forces that we've placed across the country. ... I can do it today. It would be harder on the (military) services, but I could respond."
Over the next year, Renuart said, specific active duty, Guard and Reserve units will be trained, equipped and assigned to a three-tiered response force totaling about 4,000 troops. There would be a few hundred first responders, who would be followed by a second wave of about 1,200 troops that would include medical and logistics forces.
The third wave, with the remainder of that initial 4,000 troops, would include aircraft units, engineers, and other support forces, depending on the type of incident.
Punaro, a retired Marine Corps major general, had sharp criticism for Northern Command, saying that commanders there have made little progress developing detailed response plans for attacks against the homeland.
"NorthCom has got to get religion in this area," said Punaro. He said the military needs to avoid "pickup game" type responses, such as the much-criticized federal reaction to Hurricane Katrina, and put in place the kind of detailed plans that exist for virtually any international crisis.
He also underscored the commission's main finding: the Pentagon must move toward making the National Guard and Reserves an integral part of the U.S. military.
The panel, in its No. 1 recommendation, said the Defense Department must use the nation's citizen soldiers to create an operational force that would be fully trained, equipped and ready to defend the nation, respond to crises and supplement the active duty troops in combat.
Pointing to the continued strain on the military, as it fights wars on two fronts, the panel said the U.S. has "no reasonable alternative" other than to continue to rely heavily on the reserves to supplement the active duty forces both at home and abroad.
Using reserves as a permanent, ready force, the commission argued, is a much more cost effective way to supplement the military since they are about 70 percent cheaper than active duty troops.
Asked how much it would cost to implement the panel's recommendations, Punaro said it will take billions to fully equip the Guard. The commission is going to ask the Congressional Budget Office to do a cost analysis, he said.
In perhaps its most controversial recommendation, the panel again said that the nation's governors should be given the authority to direct active-duty troops responding to an emergency in their states. That recommendation, when it first surfaced last year, was rebuffed by the military and quickly rejected by Defense Secretary Robert Gates.
"I believe we're going to wear him down," said Punaro.
Renuart, however, said he believes it is unlikely that Gates will reverse himself. Renuart said he's talked to a number of state leaders on the matter, and most don't want full command of active duty troops — to include their care, feeding, discipline and logistics demands. Instead, he said, governors want to know that in a crisis, their needs will be met.