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NGB Chief Lengyel on the Way Ahead

General Joseph Lengyel talks about what’s next in deployments and cyber, and what he learned from his venerable predecessor
GEN Joseph Lengyel says that the State Partnership Program will continue to expand, adding that more of those exchanges could involve the cyber domain. "It's exciting," he says.
GEN Joseph Lengyel says that the State Partnership Program will continue to expand, adding that more of those exchanges could involve the cyber domain. "It's exciting," he says.

As chief of the National Guard Bureau, General Joseph Lengyel (pronounced len-GHELL) has a seat at the table of the highest levels of our nation’s defense—as an advisor to the commander in chief, secretary of defense and National Security Council. He’s also the official channel of communication from the Department of Defense to all the states and territories on Guard matters.

But when we talked to the general recently, it was easy to see that his focus is first down the chain of command, not up it, as he frequently brought up issues addressing the quality of life of line-level M-Day Soldiers (like his comments about deployments). You can also see his willingness to look outside the conventional ways of doing things, because when he discusses the Guard as an organization and talks about improving the efficiency of its operation, he uses business terms like enterprise and business model.

Here’s our conversation with the man who will be setting the tone and direction for the Guard in the foreseeable future on topics ranging from his priorities to where the Guard can expect to expand.


Q: What advice did the previous chief of the National Guard Bureau, General Frank Grass, give you on his way out?

A: He said that in four years, it’s going to be over before you know it, so enjoy it. [He said my wife Sally and I would have] a great time taking care of these great Soldiers in our National Guard. That was his parting advice as he walked out the door.


Q: You served as General Grass’ vice chief for several years. What did you gain from observing him over that time?

A: He was a great boss to work for. I say quite freely, it’s hard to be the vice chief for four years—when you’re the guy who wants to be the decision-maker, and you’re in a support role for four years. But if you’re going to do that, you hope you’re going to do it for a guy like General Frank Grass. He was a real gentleman, and he left with the National Guard having better, stronger relationships just about everywhere we went because of the kind of man he was.

I think he was widely regarded as one of the nicest men in the Department of Defense. He just had a great way of working with people, and never had a bad thing to say about anybody. He was always focused on what the issue was, and how to resolve it, how to make it better. And it was a pleasure to watch for four years.

Lengyel coordinates the Guard response to Hurricane Matthew at the National Guard Coordination Center in Arlington, VA, in October.


Q: Your father was an Air Force officer and a Vietnam Veteran. What lessons do you take from him into this role?

A: My dad was a career officer—he actually started his career in the Massachusetts National Guard, and then went Active Duty and spent the remainder of his career in the Active Component. He loved the Air Force, he loved the military, he loved the mission. Everything about an Air Force officer that I try to emulate—integrity first, and service before self, and excellence in all we do—it all came from him.

That was my example and my model that I watched my entire life—and I hope it’s rubbed off in a positive way. My brother is also a general officer in the Air Force, and we have sons that have chosen military careers. So it’s really been a lifelong family business for all of us.


Q: What’s the status of the Guard’s role in cyber warfare, and what do you need from the Soldiers in the field to complete that mission?

A: The cyber enterprise is a growing enterprise. It’s kind of the newest domain in warfare, and we’re getting attacked in the country every day in the cyber realm. On the Guard side of it, we do what we do in every one of our skill sets—we train to become part of the warfighting domain. On the Army side, we have defensive elements in every state, and then by the end of ’19 we’ll have 43 units in 34 states.

So our goal is to get all of those people trained up to do their warfighting mission, and have [the Guard] be part of the ongoing rotational cyber requirement in the Title 10 Active Component domain. Right now, we have two cyber protection teams on the Air Force side that are active. On the Army side, we’re still working our way into the Active Component mission piece, but we’re building the enterprise. And it clearly is a mission for the future, no doubt).


Q: Another big mission for the Guard is the State Partnership Program. Are there any expansions you’re exploring? What’s next for that mission?

A: As combatant commanders have requests for us to have additional partnerships with new countries, [we will expand]. We have partnerships with 76 nations right now, and in the near term we expect to announce three new partnerships: with Argentina, Malaysia and Niger. I think as we engage around the world, the State Partnership Program is a great way to do that.

And I do think we have the ability to add, at a moderate rate, some additional partnerships. And in those partnerships we’ll continue to emerge and grow our activities [just like we’ve been doing]. Cyber is a great example. When we began [the state] partnerships, we didn’t do things in the cyber domain, and now we do. That’s one of the biggest requested operations we have now with some of our SPPs: for us to share and cooperate on various scenarios that might impact our homeland in the cyber realm. So it’s exciting.


Q: Another big National Guard story in the news is the integration of females into combat. Where does that stand as NGB looks at it?

A: It’s clear that there are no more restrictions on where men or women can serve, provided they can meet the physical requirements to do the position. And those requirements aren’t gender-specific. They’re requirements that people have to accomplish in order to do the job. If you can [meet them], and you have the desire to do those jobs, then you’re available to go wherever you want in the Army and Air Force enterprise. We have had females make it through the infantry basic course. We’ve had females make it through the tanker course. Your only requirement now is that you meet the physical standards and you obey the oath of office that you took when you swore into the military.

If you can do those two things, you can do the job.


Q: A recent development in the Army is the concept of the new Associated Units. What can you tell us about them?

A: The Associated Units Pilot Program is designed to align the training schedules, resources and integration of specific units with their counterparts, whether that’s Active, Guard [or Reserve]. What that’s going to do is make those components more familiar with each other. It builds trust, frankly. The basis of any relationship or any endeavor is the trust between the components, or the pieces and parts that are playing together to make it work.

This is designed so that if a brigade goes someplace, and it has a National Guard battalion embedded in it as an associate program, they would all come together, and they would mobilize together, and they would fight together. And I think that someday that will happen. Right now, we haven’t progressed far enough down the road to see that specific scenario, but I think that’s where it will go one day, and I think that’s the only reason to do it. We train better, which is going to make us critique each other harder, which is going to ultimately make us a better, stronger fighting force, and that’s good for the Army, it’s good for the Guard, and it’s good for the country.


Q: Speaking of deployments, that’s another thing you spoke about in your confirmation hearing—keeping them more predictable. What changes to deployments will you be looking for?

A: What I’m looking for is predictability and flexibility, so our deployment schedule is rotational. There’s a large chunk of our force in their [year that they’re eligible for deployment], and I would like it to be that those forces on some regular basis know in a timely fashion that they will be deployed someplace. That, No. 1, makes it worthwhile doing all the training that it takes to get ready to go, and No. 2, allows families and employers to plan for the absence of the service member. And, frankly, that’s the payoff, after somebody takes all of the time and invests all of the effort into doing the readiness training to deploy. When that employer sees that service member go out the door and go to Europe for the European Reassurance Initiative—or go to Afghanistan or Iraq, or wherever it is—it’s their way of helping support the nation. 

Soldiers and Airmen need predictability so they can plan their lives around their families and their civilian occupations—that’s what’s unique about our business model. If employers can’t make money, they won’t hire Guard Soldiers or Airmen, USERRA rules aside. And what makes us a bargain [to the Active Component] is that most of our force gets their compensation from somebody besides the federal government. I see that as a strength of our organization and not as a weakness. That’s why we need predictability. And predictability can be seen both ways. It’s just as bad to schedule a deployment for a Soldier and then cancel it at the last minute as it is to not have somebody know in a timely fashion that they’re going to deploy.