AUGUSTA — The Maine Army National Guard’s top official said Tuesday that a controversial proposal to convert the storied 133rd Engineer Battalion into infantry units is likely the best possible way to adapt to shifting military priorities.

But that doesn’t mean he loves the idea.

“If the federal government and the Army decides to do this, we can argue, we can push back, but ultimately they’re going to do what they want to do,” said Brig. Gen. James Campbell, adjutant general of the Maine Guard.

Campbell joined Gov. Paul LePage on Tuesday for a Q&A with reporters in the State House. It was the first time Campbell had spoken with the media since reports of the battalion swap surfaced nearly four weeks ago.

LePage and Campbell on Tuesday toed a fine line — they stressed repeatedly that the cut was by no means a done deal, while explaining why the conversion was likely imminent and how it would benefit the state in the long term.

“We want to make sure every soldier we have can stay in uniform, have a great career, continue to serve,” Campbell said. “If it means we have to do some changes and transformation, that’s natural. It happens. It’s unfortunate and it’s stressful, but we’re going to do what we have to.”

Over the past month, LePage has maintained his opposition to the plan. While he initially downplayed the plan and cast any controversy around it as political, he later confirmed that the proposal had been developed, and described it as part of ever-changing contingency planning for a proposed Pentagon budget that would see Army forces cut to pre-9/11 levels.

Last week, it was revealed that Campbell had briefed Maine’s congressional delegation in an email dated April 29. In the email, he said the plan to trade the 133rd to another state in exchange for an infantry battalion was “highly likely,” regardless of whether cuts proposed in the Pentagon’s budget were accepted by Congress or not, and that the Guard had been seeking an infantry unit “for some time now.”

Many interpreted those comments as Campbell — an infantryman himself — advocating for such a swap. On Tuesday, Campbell attempted to put those comments in context.

He said that regardless of how Congress moves on the Pentagon budget, the Joint Chiefs are looking to rebalance the military to better suit the needs of the nation as it continues decreasing its presence in the Middle East.

To that end, he said, the National Guard Bureau is ordering a decrease of the number of support units and increase in the infantry. Campbell said it’s a reflection of senior military officials’ strategic decision to focus on shifting from “tail to teeth” — or reducing support units suited for long-term military endeavors while increasing combat capacity.

“Coming out of these wars, the military has been told, ‘We don’t want you to plan for or size yourselves to conduct any long, extensive ground campaigns anymore,’” Campbell said. “And so the Army has taken that and decided, in order to be more agile, they’re moving things.”

That means fewer military police units, fewer logistics units, fewer medical units and fewer engineer units, Campbell said. Because Maine’s National Guard is dominated by support units — and heavily stocked in engineers — he said the state is a likely target for conversion or elimination.

That’s why the state started drafting a proposal to convert the 133rd — a five-company battalion with roughly 560 soldiers — into an infantry battalion that would include up to 200 more soldiers. Campbell said it’s a contingency plan that addresses what’s likely to transpire while maintaining or even growing the National Guard forces in Maine.

“Given the strategic direction [of the Pentagon], all other things being equal, if we must — if we lose the fight and must endure this change, this is probably a better solution than something less sustainable and less relevant,” he said. “We want to sustain what we have, we want to make sure that we’ve got viable, relevant forces in the future, so that the next time this comes around, we aren’t vulnerable again.”

LePage, who had until Tuesday stressed that he would not support any plan that involved the loss of the 133rd Battalion, seemed more open — or at least resigned — to it.

“If the National Guard is looking to build up the tooth, and not the tail, then we certainly want to be at the front of the pack, trying to get as many teeth here as we can, in Maine,” he said.

LePage also threw his weight behind a bill pending in Congress that would study the National Guard structure and make recommendations for where and how to rebalance for a post-Iraq, post-Afghanistan military. He also stood behind Campbell, who has come under fire in the media for his contingency plan for the 133rd.

Campbell “looked at it from the standpoint of, if we’re going to be forced to do some retrenchments, what can we get for it?” LePage said. “We probably ended up getting ahead of ourselves a little bit — like maybe two or three years — but the fact of the matter is this matter needs to be studied and we certainly don’t want to jump the gun.”

For his part, Campbell said he could have been more clear in his communications about the plan.

“If there’s a misinterpretation of some of the things that have come out, I take full responsibility for that,” he said. “But I don’t need to apologize, because we’ve been on record for a long time [opposing any cuts to the Guard]. I think my soldiers and my staff understand what is happening.”


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