The Reserves: Ready to Fight . . . World War I?

By Commander John C. Keegan, U.S. Naval Reserve

To meet this broad range of missions, the operational tempo of our forces has increased dramatically since the end of the Cold War. Although the threat of attack by a superpower has diminished, the increased numbers of potentially hostile nuclear states and antagonistic regional powers have kept American forces deployed on short turnaround worldwide. Even as military missions have been expanded to include such a broad range of contingencies, the active duty forces simultaneously have been reduced by approximately one third. The strain of this heightened schedule, combined with a smaller active-duty force, has resulted in lower retention and recruitment rates of personnel and greater reliance on the reserve forces.

Given this global environment, how have reserve forces responded in terms of organization, training, and administration? In many ways, the reserve forces operate much as they did when grandpa was a doughboy. Reservists and guardsmen typically "drill" monthly at a reserve center and attend a two-week "summer camp." This system was devised at a time when the National Guard and reserve components met for one evening each week for close-order drill or marlinspike seamanship training, and spent two weeks each summer at a rifle range or on a ship chipping paint. As a result, virtually everything about the reserves reflects this antiquated concept. It dictates everything from how reservists are trained to how they are paid to their status under federal law.

Since the end of World War I, we have had only three instances when the reserve components were called up in significant numbers, and only two of those resulted in deployment of reserve combat forces to a war zone. As a throwback to the antiquated concept of a shadow reserve force, the reserve components continue to maintain a separate chain of command from the active forces they exist to support. These commands issue orders, regulations, and administrative directives—all of which are different from those of the supported active forces. In order to support these reserve organizations, a completely separate career field has been created: the full-time reservists. Known by various names from service to service, 65,000 of these career reservists exist only to process paperwork that is unique to the reserve components. This structure is taken to its most ludicrous extreme in the Army National Guard where there are eight division headquarters, each commanded by a major general, with no active-duty mission!

Throughout the Cold War, reserve commands were created and maintained as part of the military profile of deterrence, much like the World War I concept of rapid reserve expansion. Though largely bluster, these commands were weighed in the balance of strength poised against the Soviet Union. It did not matter that it was improbable that guard divisions would deploy intact or that no one could remember a reserve ship and reserve crew sailing into harm's way. They were chips on the table and the stakes were high. Today the balance of power has shifted. The "Evil Empire" has crumbled, and it has been replaced by a new but less-stable world order. At the same time, budget constraints have reduced our forces drastically. To face this new situation, our military has been reduced by a third, but the need for forward-deployed presence has increased. As a result, the reliance on the reserve components has increased.

The reserve spirit is willing, but unfortunately the flesh is weak. The majority of reservists and guardsmen are anxious to provide valuable support to the active forces. Their organization and administration, however, stand in the way. While an active-duty service member can transition quickly from training to an operational status, the reservist is burdened by bureaucracy. Is the reservist in drill status or annual training status or active duty for training status? Is he or she on recall status or active duty for special work status? All of these have their own funding sources and administrative requirements. Because of the strange nature of reserve paperwork, too often the active command just shrugs and does without reserve support rather than dealing with the red tape and long lead times.

The existing system does work in the Air Force Reserve and Air National Guard. Often the operational sorties for cargo, refueling, and weather aircraft are flown by part time personnel of the Guard and Reserve. Much of the reserve support services required by the Air Force are provided by individuals and not by "reserve units." The individual mobilization designee system is used extensively to support the Air Force as required. In spite of cumbersome requirements imposed by federal law, the Air Force has managed to sculpt the administration to provide effective augmentation.

Unfortunately, the success of the Air Force Reserve and the Air National Guard, which combined are less than 20% of the reserve force, has not been attained in the other services. Army National Guard leadership squabbles with the Army Chief of Staff over "traditional" missions for divisions even though Guard divisions have never been used in combat without extensive retraining and refitting. During the Persian Gulf War, infantry and armor unit staffs down to battalion size were deemed to be inadequately prepared for deployment. Naval Reserve organization continues to place ships' crews at reserve centers hundreds of miles from the nearest port. Consequently, active duty commands all too often see the reserves as a situation to be dealt with rather than a resource to be used.

Current military philosophy talks about a revolution in military affairs. The report of the Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) of May 1997 defined this "revolution" as "harnessing new technologies to give U.S. forces greater military capabilities through advanced concepts, doctrine, and organizations so that they can dominate any future battlefield." In addressing the role of the reserve components, the QDR stated flatly, "no major operation can be successful without them," and spoke in patronizing terms about being helpful with respect to peacetime commitments. Unfortunately, the QDR only nibbled around the edges of reserve organization, and did not address the inherent institutional problems. The revolution is firing blanks when it comes to reserve capability.

What can be done? In order for the reserves to catch up and fully integrate with the active forces, it will require changes in federal law, changes in military regulations, and a change in the philosophy of doing business. It is time to think about a "revolution in reserve affairs." In order to achieve such a revolution, certain basic principles must be recognized and followed. It must be acknowledged that:

  • Every reservist exists only to support a war-fighting command.
  • Any administrative requirement that differentiates between reserve forces and active forces is counterproductive to seamless integration of the reserves.
  • Seamless integration must be integral to peacetime organization as well as wartime deployment.
  • Reserve service must be compatible with civilian employment as well as military preparedness.

Every individual reservist and reserve unit must have a designated mobilization assignment that is fully integrated into a contingency plan. Reservists who support only the reserves, such as the Navy's Training and Administration of Reserves (TARs) and the Army's Active Guard and Reserve (AGR) should either be terminated or integrated into the active components. Headquarters that exist only to command reserve organizations also should be realigned or scrapped. Both Congress and the Pentagon need to realize that any regulation or law that singles out reservists is counterproductive to full use of a major portion of our defense structure. Administrative and legal distinctions between active duty and various reserve statuses must be eliminated. In order to provide a smooth transition to active duty, the pay, benefits, and administration of reservists should be integrated in a manner proportionate and appropriate to participation. War plans must be prepared with the full expectation that congressional and presidential authorization allow implementation with all required forces, active and reserve.

In order to achieve seamless integration of the reserve forces into the active commands, reserve units and individuals should be integral to active duty organizations. Training and equipment must be compatible with mobilization requirements. This means that reservists should train with their active duty counterparts—not just often, but always! Reserve centers and their staffs should be scrapped and the money saved put toward transporting reservists to their gaining commands for training. The gaining commands should provide the necessary administration for the reserve individuals and units to ensure compatibility with mission requirements and capabilities. Training standards, to include continuing education, should be the same throughout the military. As the military acknowledges increased dependence on reserve forces, it also should recognize the reserves' limitations and work to minimize or eliminate them. Reservists can bring perishable skills from the civilian sector to active duty and provide augmentation of units that can employ skills that only need periodic refresher training. Generally, reserve forces cannot and should not be considered as en masse replacements for active duty forces, except in contingencies that allow for significant spin-up training.

The Pentagon must acknowledge the reality of reserve service. The reservist has a commitment to a "real job," as most refer to it. In spite of federal law protecting job rights for reservists, most civilian employers find reserve service incompatible with job requirements and create subtle barriers to participation. As a result, the vast majority of reservists are employed by government agencies or companies with government contracts. Why not acknowledge this fact and make provisions in federal contracts and local government programs to designate part time civilian/part-time military positions. Civil engineers in federal agencies, mechanics in state motor pools, or doctors employed by Medicare-eligible HMOs could have reserve service as a condition of employment. This would allow freer availability for the, time necessary to meet increased military training requirements and create the skills pool the military needs.

In order to create a flexible and effective defense force the reserve components must be organized and administered efficiently. The vestiges of World War I must be discarded and the requirements of the 21st century recognized. Any difference between active and reserve components must be vigorously scrutinized and eliminated wherever possible. It may be optimistic to assume that there would be no difference in components, but surely that should be the goal.

Commander Keegan is an intelligence officer in the Naval Reserve assigned to NCIS. He previously has served on active duty in the Army, and as a reservist in the Army Reserve and Army National Guard. He is a graduate of the Naval War College reserve officer program. As a civilian, he is the mayor of Peoria, Arizona.


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