Proceedings: How big is the Navy Reserve? Is it growing, shrinking, or holding fast?
Mustin: For fiscal year (FY) 2022, our end strength was 58,600, which comprises two populations: the Selected Reserve (SelRes) and the Training and Administration of the Reserve or TARs. The TAR population is about 10,000, and the general reserve population is about 48,000. There’s also the individual ready reserve (IRR). That’s another 30,000 people who have some remaining military service obligation. They don’t drill, but we do screen them once a year. In totality then, the force is just under 90,000 people.
I inherited a slightly decreasing force. The expectation for FY23 is a decrease of about 900 billets, which reflects active-duty ship and squadron decommissionings. When the active force divests of hardware, equipment, and people there is typically a resulting drop in the Reserve Force. That said, there are discussions about whether the Reserve should create more capability and capacity for mission areas such as space and cyber.
Proceedings: What are your top priorities? And what are the biggest changes that have happened in the Navy Reserve on your watch?
Mustin: We have four top priorities: the design of our force; the training of our force; the way we mobilize our force; and how we develop our force. Not surprisingly, those are our four main lines of effort, each headed by a two-star admiral. At a macro level, the Navy Reserve fits nicely into the Chief of Naval Operations’ (CNO’s) vision articulated in his Navigation Plan (NavPlan).
We are transforming the Reserve from an organization focused on counterterrorism and countering violent extremists, which was primarily land-based in Africa and the Middle East over the past 21 years, to one prepared for maritime competition against peer adversaries. That has resulted in force design changes to restore the Reserve’s potential for sea control and power projection from the sea. My job is to give our fleet commanders what they will need, if and when the nation mobilizes, and the Reserve Force mobilizes, to fight and win a maritime war.
Proceedings: That’s a sea change, as the Reserve Force did so much of the individual mobilizations to support operations in Iraq, Afghanistan, and other places.
Mustin: Yes, we mobilized more than 120,000 reserve sailors after 9/11. The flexibility inherent in the Reserve Force will always be brought to bear against unanticipated national requirements—such as what we see in the European theater right now [with the Russian invasion of Ukraine]. When the Commander, Naval Forces Europe, says we must increase our condition of readiness from day-to-day operations to 24/7 operations, the Reserve Force must be ready to assist. In most cases, whether at Indo-Pacific Command, Central Command, or other headquarters, watch sections two, three, and beyond are made up of reservists.
One particular challenge is Joint Staff requirements for individual augmentees. We source those with sailors taken from units designed to do specific missions, and it often means putting them in environments they aren’t trained for. Every one of our sailors—active and reserve—is an important, unique asset, and the bandwidth and skills they can bring to bear need to be applied against what they are trained to do. The taxpayers don’t get the return on investment when we send sailors who are trained for maritime requirements to do land-based work.
The CNO and Secretary of the Navy have been supportive in saying we need to restore the strategic depth of the Reserve and minimize the individual augmentee burden. We are working to push back on those demands. The CNO even put it in the NavPlan, “[We will use] our reserve component in critical roles at sea and ashore rather than as individual augmentees in the fight against violent extremist organizations. We will drive our individual augmentee requirements to zero.”
Proceedings: That leads to my next question: 2022 has been a challenging year for active-duty recruiting and retention. How’s the Navy Reserve doing?
Mustin: This is another of my top priorities. We have 700 sailors in the machinery of recruiting, yet, for the past seven years, we have failed to meet the recruiting goals of the Reserve.
Our historical recruiting goal is about 7,000 people, and this year  we will find ourselves about 3,000 below end strength. I watched as this was developing in FY21. I talked to the Chief of Naval Personnel at the time, and said it’s not enough to use the same tactics and approaches. So, we stood up a new command, a reserve recruiting command, headed by one of our TAR officers. Now we have sailors who are dedicated to the reserve accession mission.
We still have lots of sailors integrated into the active-duty recruiting machinery, and we continue to work closely with Navy Recruiting Command. I recently met with the agency that supports the Navy marketing campaign, and I asked about the strategy for reserve recruiting. Have they developed insights appropriate for reserve targets? What is the messaging strategy? What is the media plan to reach candidates who are most likely to pursue a career in the Reserve? Our focus is on sailors who are transitioning from active duty. Sixty percent of our total annual target is prior-service sailors.
We love to get officers coming off active duty who are already wearing warfare devices. It’s hard for the Reserve to send a prospective junior officer to flight school or BUD/S or Surface Warfare Officers School. That said, 40 percent of our targets are new accession trainees (NATs), and we have historically used NATs as a buffer. If we were short on prior-service sailors, we could recruit more NATs. But this year our NAT accession rate was only 65 percent—a historic low.
We are manipulating as many levers as we can, including incentives and bonuses. We’re providing more bonuses for transitions from active service. We’re also initiating deferments for mobilization. For example, if a sailor comes from prior service and is a healthcare professional, we can promise not to mobilize them for up to three years. For regular sailors, that deferment is up to two years. Surveys show interest in joining the Reserve Force, but people tell us they are transitioning because they want to spend more time with family, go to business school, or start a company, and the thought of being involuntarily mobilized just after leaving active duty is a deterrent. Offering deferments helps us overcome some of that reluctance.
One of the great things we rolled out in 2020 is a standard contract for active-duty sailors that we call “4-2-2.” It’s a four-year active-duty contract for a new sailor, after which they become a selected reservist for two years, then an IRR sailor for two years. We’ll see the first of that cohort entering the Reserve in 2024, and I want to make sure we have the administrative processes and screening mechanisms in place to get the right sailors into the right billets and units.
The messaging to attract a reserve candidate is different than the messaging for an active-duty candidate. There is career flexibility, and the benefits are great, including the Post-9/11 GI Bill. We have tuition assistance initiatives now for SelRes sailors. We’re also looking at health benefits and blended retirement. All those factors, along with a patriotic desire to serve and to continue to be a part of the elite Navy team, are part of the mix. We just need to be smart about the messages to make it work.
Proceedings: In November, Marine Corps Commandant General David Berger wrote a Proceedings article about recruiting and retention shortfalls across the joint force. He mentioned a decline in able-bodied young people; a lower level of trust in the military caused by things such as the way we left Afghanistan; and fewer Americans knowing someone who serves in the military. Is the Reserve experiencing similar recruiting and retention problems?
Mustin: We are seeing some retention issues as a result of COVID-19 compliance, compounded by a smaller population on the input side. There are issues of propensity to serve. Issues with the total population. I understand them. But that’s not really my target. My target is sailors coming from the fleet or prior-service sailors who had a break in service but are still eligible for the Reserve. We’ve made sure the Transition Assistance Program has a portion of the class dedicated to the Reserve. We’re also working with active-duty career counselors—often the people who would first propose the Reserve to many sailors—to make sure they have the right information. We want them to help plant a seed with junior sailors about why they should consider the Reserve.
Proceedings: You have a program called “mobilize to billet” that focuses on preparing sailors for their mobilization billets. Can you give some examples? Where it is working well and where does it still need improvement?
Mustin: Mob-to-billet is part of our training line of effort. We want to make sure that if and when we execute a mass mobilization, every one of our sailors shows up qualified, credentialed, certified, and ready to perform.
Over the past two decades, the Navy Reserve had been operationally focused and was doing great work, but often there was little correlation between the units and the billets the sailors were filling relative to the work they were doing. So, we snapped a chalk line to determine how we were doing it today and then established how it should be in the future, which is billet-based activations.
Every time you put on the uniform, your training should be focused on the billet you’re filling. Reservists get paid for a weekend a month and two weeks a year. Those 38 days should be dedicated to being ready to mobilize. That includes medical and dental readiness, GMTs, and physical fitness. The focus is on warfighting readiness. The expectation is that by showing up and being a part of a unit, you’re focused on and have complied with the requirements. If you are an operational planner in a maritime operations center, what job qualifications and schools are necessary to ensure you have met the requirements established by the active component? If you’re not ready to mobilize, you’re of no value to us.
The Reserve is not making up training requirements. Our requirements are the same as those of our active-duty sailors, and we revisit those often with the fleet commanders. We revisit their integrated priority lists, and we make sure the Reserve force maps against the requirements they define. If 4,000 sailors have to attend a five-week school, we need to build that into our training tracks and our budget.
There are other elements of this, too. Sailors need to know where to go. If we send 900 people to Norfolk to support Fleet Forces, are there enough barracks, bachelor officer’s quarters, or hotel rooms, rental cars, and aircraft? Do they know which buildings and desks to go to? Will their profiles load on their computers? If the answer is no to any of those things, then we are not done. We must simulate mass mobilizations to eliminate administrative, training, or operational friction so that in 48 to 72 hours our sailors are ready to show up and contribute.
Proceedings: Have you “pressed the test button?”
Mustin: Absolutely. On 30 September, we wrapped up the second mass activation exercise for FY22. We’ve also done a number of mobility-to-billet exercises in Reserve regions or Reserve centers for portions of our SelRes population. Every year I want to execute enough vetting of the mobilization process so if we have to do it at scale, we will not be starting from scratch.
Proceedings: What percentage of the force do you test each year?
Mustin: In FY23 it is going to be 100 percent. It was almost 100 percent in FY22. We have six regions that drive the Reserve centers to vet the readiness of each command. Then we look at the aggregate metrics to address problems. For example, if dental readiness is a problem, we can bring in mobile dental vans to improve dental readiness at a reserve center.
One thing I am proud of is the modernization of administrative readiness. We developed an annual readiness questionnaire that replicates the checklist sailors would receive if they were going to be mobilized. It’s an online portal in which sailors can update their status. In the future, it will draw from medical readiness databases so we can know if there are medical or administrative issues or other constraints holding a sailor back from being ready. Ultimately, we will apply AI algorithms to help us get ahead of those things.
Proceedings: I want to ask about the “Apply Board” [the process where O-4 and above SelRes officers apply and compete for specific paid billets, often requiring them to travel great distances at their own expense to conduct their monthly reserve drills]. Is it still the norm? Is there any relief for reservists who have to pay to travel for their monthly drills?
Mustin: We have a new program called IDTR. Where IDT is the standard kind of drill, and the “R” stands for reimbursable. We started with the command triad (commanding officers, executive officers, and command master chiefs). Those who want to command generally agree to travel, and that usually means on their own dime.
The reimbursable piece allows us to give the command triad $500 each per drill weekend. Lodging is provided, but we can reimburse them to drive or fly. We put several million dollars in the program in the FY23 budget. We even opened the aperture so it’s not just command triads; it’s also our operational units. For example, the Navy Expeditionary Combat Command, maritime security squadrons, cargo-handling battalions, and construction forces are highly operational. There are lots of TARs on those staffs but also lots of SelRes who are all eligible for IDTR. That’s a commitment because we want our best sailors aligned with our most operational, high-consequence units.
Proceedings: Last question. In the CNO’s NavPlan 2.0 there is a lot of discussion about “get real, get better,” facing problems honestly, and dealing with them directly. What are some problems facing the Reserve force, and how are you trying to “get real, get better”?
Mustin: The Navy Reserve Fighting Instructions are a direct reflection of the NavPlan, which speaks to total force and reserve readiness. “Get real, get better” is about understanding the way the world is and being thoughtful about addressing the most urgent needs. In the case of the Reserve, that resulted in the development of our four lines of effort: design, train, mobilize, and develop the force. The first three are about warfighting readiness. The fourth is as well, but it starts with taking care of our sailors and ensuring they understand how they fit into this elite team. We want them to be motivated and proud to be part of the Navy Reserve. It’s incorporating the culture of excellence, exemplifying signature behaviors, eliminating destructive ones, and ensuring sailors and their families understand and can access the benefits they’ve earned.
When the CNO articulated the NavPlan, we had already built out the Navy Reserve Fighting Instructions. They are the mechanism to share our priorities. Number one is warfighting readiness. Everything we do either contributes to that goal, or we will stop doing it. Taxpayers pay for the Navy Reserve to be ready to mobilize in the event of war or significant contingencies. Our sailors need to be ready. All the lines of effort, everything in the fighting instructions, is geared toward ensuring we can deliver 58,000 ready sailors if our nation goes to war.
Admiral Mustin graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1990 and served as a surface warfare officer until transitioning to the Navy Reserve in 2001.