Go Operational! Reforming the National Guard and Reserves

By Major General Arnold L. Punaro, U.S. Marine Corps Reserve (Retired)

After nearly two years of study, our independent Commission on the National Guard and Reserves has concluded that the threats and our national security compel the development of such an operational reserve. As stated in our final report delivered to Congress and the Secretary of Defense in January 2008, there is no reasonable alternative to continuing an increased reliance on the reserve forces for a wide range of missions at home and abroad. (To see the report, visit www.cngr.gov and click on "Resource Center," then "CNGR Reports.")

At the same time, and as a consequence of this reliance, we see no reasonable alternative to undertaking a fundamental, thorough reform of the reserve system—reform that is essential if this operational reserve is to be feasible today and sustainable in the future, and if it is to be fully integrated, as it absolutely must be, into this nation's total military force.

The contribution of National Guard and Reserve forces to the defense of the nation has grown to almost five times that of pre-9/11 levels; at the peak of their use in 2004, they constituted more than 40 percent of all U.S. military forces in Iraq. Without the 600,000 Guardsmen and Reservists who were mobilized, the nation would not have been able to sustain operations in Iraq and Afghanistan at force levels commanders requested without a return to the draft.

More than Defense

These numbers do not include thousands of reservists serving in non-mobilized capacities such as counter-drug operations, exercises, and combatant command and service augmentation, as well as responding to natural disasters such as Hurricane Katrina, when 55,000 National Guard personnel and Reserves from all branches were used. This reality is the first reason that the commission believes an operational Guard and Reserve is required.

The second reason is the need to address new threats to the homeland. Although charged by Congress and the President to be the lead federal agency for overall domestic incident management, the Department of Homeland Security itself does not have the capacity to respond to catastrophes that would incapacitate civilian government over a wide geographic area. Such capacity resides in the Department of Defense, whose responsibilities encompass both defense of the homeland and domestic civil support (broadly defined as support to other agencies in the performance of their mission). But while DOD views defense of the homeland from attack as part of its core warfighting mission and has taken full responsibility for it, it has historically viewed support to civil authorities, such as local governments, as a lesser included—that is, lower-priority—mission.

In a post-9/11, post-Hurricane Katrina environment, it is doubtful that the American people, who pay for DOD's manpower and weaponry, will agree that preparing for and responding to disasters in the homeland is a lower-priority mission than overseas warfighting. In particular, the effect of a weapon of mass destruction on a large metropolitan area would be so horrible—and overwhelming—that only the military would have the capability to respond.

Give DOD Responsibility for Civil Operations

The Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD) agreed last year that DOD must start to program and budget for support to civil authorities, and the 2008 National Defense Authorization Act mandates this approach. But while numerous statutes give DOD authority to conduct civil support operations, Congress has never given DOD clear statutory responsibility for them. Until that responsibility is assigned, we cannot be assured that the new DOD policy on civil support will be fully implemented and sustained, or that civil support will ever become the high-priority mission that guaranteeing America's safety and security demands.

The third reason for having an operational Guard and Reserve is economic. Whether augmenting active forces overseas or meeting emerging threats in the homeland, reservists are the best buy for the taxpayer. By any measure, they are cost-effective, particularly in light of recent steep rises in active-duty manpower costs. Our analysis, backed up by numerous outside studies, finds that the Guard and Reserves are about 70 percent less expensive than the active components.

It is important to understand that keeping the reserve components operational is not just a bitter pill we have to swallow to avoid worse ills. The commission's report makes it clear that this shift in policy has inherent benefits—maintaining our military's most intimate and extensive links to the American people, for example—that go well beyond meeting the nation's immediate needs at home and abroad.

What Needs to Happen

DOD and Congress have had no serious public discussion or debate on the need for an operational reserve; have not focused on the overarching alterations necessary to make the reserve components a ready, rotational force; and have not reformed the laws and policies governing the reserve components to ensure the sustainability of the needed operational force.

The commission's first recommendation is that Congress and DOD modify existing laws, policies, and regulations related to roles and missions, funding mechanisms, personnel rules, pay categories, equipping, training, mobilization, organization structure, and reserve component categories. Our final report offers detailed findings and conclusions, and 94 other recommendations grouped in five categories, to effect these changes.

Enhancing DOD's Role in the Homeland —Early in the commission's review we learned that DOD had not explicitly programmed and budgeted for civil support missions or adequately equipped the National Guard for domestic missions. We also learned that the Department of Homeland Security, our lead federal disaster-response agency, had not identified for DOD the civil support requirements it would be expected to meet when responding to a catastrophe.

In the 2008 defense authorization, Congress mandated that DOD develop these requirements in consultation with DHS; but until that mandate is actually carried out, DOD's ability to prepare to protect lives and property in the homeland will continue to be constrained. We recommend that Congress pass legislation making response to disasters in the homeland a core competency of DOD, equal in priority to its combat responsibilities. Doing so would capture the momentum of DOD policy development in this area and would sustain it into the new administration.

In addition, we recommend that Congress pass legislation describing the lead role the National Guard and Reserves should play within DOD's homeland efforts. Our analysis shows that Guard members and Reservists living and working in communities throughout this country are uniquely equipped to combine their military training and skills with the local knowledge, experience, and relationships needed to best help civil authorities cope with emergencies.

We know Secretary of Defense Robert Gates understands that DOD must begin to program and budget for civil support, and his OSD leads are working hard and making real progress. The U.S. Northern Command must also improve its capabilities. In our view, NORTHCOM, which has primary responsibility for homeland security and civil support, is not yet using all military components, active and reserve, in planning, training, and exercising for civil support. Improving the situation within NORTHCOM will require, among other changes, greater involvement of personnel knowledgeable about National Guard and Reserve capabilities.

Instituting Personnel Management for an Integrated Total Force —DOD can no longer rely on Cold War-era approaches to personnel management. Strategies today must foster a continuum of service as part of an integrated total force. That is, they must facilitate the seamless transition of individual reservists on and off active duty to meet mission requirements and permit varying levels of participation by service members over the course of a military career. While the integrated total force we envision represents a paradigm shift for DOD and Congress that will take years—perhaps decades—to fully implement, we note in our report that the Navy's new Human Capital Strategy is moving in the right direction and is well under way.

Reserve Forces Reform

  • Two Duty Statuses —The current plethora of duty statuses—at least 29 but perhaps as many as 32, depending on which report you read—is confusing and frustrating for all involved. Service members often encounter pay and benefit problems when they shift from one status to another—active duty to drilling reserve status, for example—and commanders can experience problems when seeking timely access to reservists needed to meet operational requirements. The simplified system we recommend contains only two duty statuses: reserve component members, under Title 10 or Title 32, would either be on active duty or off active duty.


  • Competency-Based Promotion —In DOD's current "up or out" promotion system, originally codified in 1947, selection boards consider officers for promotion at certain years-of-service points during their careers; if passed over twice for the next higher grade, officers are subject to involuntary separation or retirement. This practice discourages service members from pursuing alternative career paths, penalizes their attempts at such pursuits, and forces out some of the most experienced service members. We recommend a competency-based career management system organized around the mastery of identified knowledge, skills, and abilities, to encourage more flexible career paths. This will permit longer assignments, greater opportunity for graduate education, time out for family responsibilities, lateral entry of skilled professionals, and longer overall careers.


  • Improved Joint Experience and Education Opportunities —Congress recognized the changed nature of joint duty in the amendments to the Goldwater-Nichols Act enacted in 2006. The commission recommends that Congress now further amend Goldwater-Nichols to require reserve component officers to be joint qualified and, at the end of a 10-year transition, to make such joint qualification a criterion for promotion to general and flag officer, as is the case for their active-duty counterparts. We also recommend that DOD improve opportunities for reserve component officers to complete joint professional military education; that Congress and DOD establish a career management system for reserve component officers similar to the one currently in place for active component officers; and that DOD ensure that assignment options afford reserve component officers greater opportunity to fill joint billets.


  • Integrated Retirement System —Today, active-duty and reserve component personnel have separate retirement systems. In support of our vision of an integrated total force, the commission recommends a single retirement system to achieve force management objectives and to adapt to the changing career patterns of the young men and women whom the services must recruit and retain in the years ahead. Modifications to foster more flexible career paths include earlier vesting, government contributions to the Thrift Savings Plan, and significant retention bonuses at critical career decision points. Current service members should be given the option of converting to the new system, and new entrants should be granted a transition period.

Develop a Ready, Capable, and Available Operational Reserve 

The Cold War-era model of readiness relied on a lengthy period of time post-mobilization to rectify training shortfalls, update equipment, and address requirements of individual medical readiness. Such a framework is out of sync with the periodic and sustained rotational use of the National Guard and Reserves envisioned in current manpower planning models such as the Army's Force Generation Model. It is also inconsistent with the requirement for ready and available forces to respond to no-notice catastrophic events in the homeland. 

  • Readiness Reporting —The commission recommends that DOD expand and improve on its readiness reporting system in ways that provide operational planners more details and also answer the question "ready for what?" In today's readiness reporting system, managed by the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the standards by which all units are measured are determined by their wartime missions, not their capability to respond to crises here at home. The system we envision would extend across all services and components, contain data from the individual through the major unit level, and report on readiness for the full expanse of missions, including support to civil authorities.
  • Requirement Reviews —Realistic training requires adequate levels of equipment and the full-time support personnel needed to maintain that equipment and train reserve component units to the standards expected by the active component. The commission recommends that DOD conduct baseline reviews of the reserve components' equipment and levels of support personnel. Commissioners are skeptical that existing requirements, based on Cold War tables of organization and equipping, are accurate. We are advised that current Army plans include full funding to equip Guard and Reserve units and meet full-time support requirements. We recommend that these plans be modified in accordance with zero-based reviews and that funding for these requirements be accelerated.
  • Medical Readiness —Individual medical readiness, particularly dental readiness, was a serious issue during the first Gulf War and has remained a significant problem for some reserve components during mobilizations for Iraq and Afghanistan. As noted previously, new force generation models will provide much less time for needed fixes after Guard members and Reservists are mobilized. Remedial work will have to be completed before mobilization. Ensuring individual medical readiness for an operational reserve force should be a corporate responsibility of DOD as well as the responsibility of each service member. We recommend changes to ensure that service secretaries have the authority to provide the screening and care that allow service members to meet medical and dental standards for deployment.

Support Members, Families, Employers 

In our roundtable discussions, focus groups, and public hearings, the commission was repeatedly reminded of the central roles played by family members and employers in individuals' decisions about reenlistment.

  • Families —In contrast to most active-duty families, many Guard and Reserve families live at a considerable distance from military bases and the services they provide, and many of these families are not familiar with the intricacies of some of the important component parts of the military system (such as TRICARE, the military health care system). We recommend that family access to sources of needed information be improved, that programs currently available to families be better publicized, and that funding and staffing for family support programs be increased.


  • Employers —In recognition of the sacrifices that many employers, particularly small ones, have made in supporting reserve component employees called to active service, it is time for a new and improved compact with employers. We recommend an enhanced role and additional resources for the National Committee for Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve, greater employer access to senior leadership in DOD through a new Employer Council, and an access point offering employers one-stop shopping for specifics on laws and programs affecting them.


  • Health Care —Participants in our focus groups and hearings expressed considerable frustration with the problems they encounter in using TRICARE. The program itself offers excellent coverage but can be difficult for the first-time user to understand. In some locations, family members have trouble finding physicians and other health care providers willing to accept TRICARE. The commission makes several recommendations for improvements, including that Congress direct DOD to issue updated, user-friendly information on TRICARE and simplify claims and reimbursement processes; that reserve component members be offered the option of participating in the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program; and that a stipend be given as reimbursement for the cost of keeping a reservist's family in an employer's health insurance plan during a period of activation.

Reform Support for an Operational Reserve

Of all the organizational reforms needed, perhaps the most critical is a restructuring of reserve component categories to reflect their 21st-century operational use. The current Ready Reserve, Standby Reserve, and Retired Reserve categories were designed to provide a strategic force for a major war—a scenario that provided time for training before deployment and thus enabled the force to be maintained at reduced levels of readiness.

The commission recommends a complete restructuring of the reserve component into:

An Operational Reserve Force, consisting of present-day Selected Reserve units and individual mobilization augmentees who would periodically serve active-duty tours in rotation in support of the total force overseas and in the homeland.

A Strategic Reserve Force that would be subdivided into a Strategic Ready Reserve Force—current Selected Reserve units and individuals who are not scheduled for rotational tours of active duty, as well as the most ready, operationally current, and willing members of today's Individual Ready Reserve (IRR)—and retired service members, both regular and reserve. Unlike today's IRR, the Strategic Ready Reserve would be managed to be readily accessible in a national emergency, and provided incentives to volunteer for service with the operational reserve or active component when required.

The commission also recommends reorganizing DOD's management of reserve component issues along functional lines rather than within stovepiped entities. In this reorganization, which represents another element of total force integration, the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Reserve Affairs would be eliminated, and reserve component issues would be addressed by the undersecretary or assistant secretary responsible for the corresponding active component issues.

Let the Public Debate Begin!

The nation's leaders have backed into the far-reaching decision to use the reserves as an operational force because demands for troops in Iraq and Afghanistan have not been and will not be met by the active-duty military alone. On television screens and in newspapers, in countless pictures of guard members and reservists departing their hometowns and bases as well as responding at home, the American people are now seeing what it means to have an operational reserve—an approach to national defense in which for most reservists their separation from family, job, and community for extended periods of time is a certainty, not a possibility.

In the absence of public debate, we cannot know whether, or for how long, Americans will accept this new concept. We do know, however, that for such a concept to succeed, the understanding and acceptance of the American people are essential.

Our commission's final report offers a road map for the most significant reform of the National Guard and Reserves in half a century. But it should be more: it should be a springboard for the long-overdue public debate on how we use, and how we reward, the reservists whom this nation needs now more than ever.

General Punaro is chairman of the Commission on the National Guard and Reserves. Currently executive vice president of Science Applications International Corporation, he commanded the 4th Marine Division and served as director of Reserve Affairs at Headquarters Marine Corps. He also worked for Senator Sam Nunn (D-GA) for 24 years. He is currently a member of Secretary of Defense Robert Gates' Defense Business Board and serves on the board of directors of the National Defense Industrial Association and the Atlantic Council. 




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