September 1, 2008  

A continuum of service

We must determine whether the National Guard and reserve can be an operational reserve on a steady cycle of deployments for an indeterminate period. The nation must avoid the temptation to see the reserve as a cheap labor pool. Increasing the size of the reserve force will balance a smaller active force.

Americans want to maintain an all-volunteer force — they don’t want a draft. The only way to achieve that objective is to have a reserve component — both federal and National Guard — that is trained, equipped and available to augment and reinforce the active component. This surge of capability is most critical during wartime, but a response force that is scalable in size, type and duration of service will be needed at other times as well.

Much has been written about an operational reserve, but there is no consensus about what that term means. There has also been considerable discussion of a continuum of service, but defining that term has also defied unanimous agreement.

These two concepts — the operational role of the reserve components of the 21st century, and the continuum of service — are inextricably linked and must be understood and employed in conjunction with each other to meet fundamental objectives.

A continuum exists between the strategic and operational ends of the spectrum. This continuum influences the way the nation uses individual service members and the way it employs its reserve forces. Understanding these relationships is essential to our ability to sustain and regenerate the reserve components — an ability that is essential to success in the long war.

We must find ways to enable effective use of our most important national security asset: the men and women who are willing to serve in military uniforms. Our policies and procedures must facilitate their recruitment, allow them and their families to continue to serve throughout predictable life-status changes, and leverage their skills throughout a career that is unencumbered with unnecessary barriers.


On Oct. 1, 2001, President Bush signed a directive declaring “partial mobilization” of the nation’s National Guard and reserve forces. This directive authorizes up to 1 million members of the reserve component to be mobilized for up to two years. In the succeeding seven years, almost 700,000 men and women have been called to temporary active duty, many for multiple tours. The effect of this surge has been to greatly expand the size of the active-duty force for a fraction of the cost of a comparably sized active-duty force.

The service of these Americans has been truly superior. They have answered the call to duty with few complaints and have served with distinction. Many have been wounded; some have made the ultimate sacrifice. Their families, communities and employers have been remarkably supportive. In many instances, this sustained support has surprised the pessimists who had little faith in the ability of those institutions to bear hardship, difficulty and loss.

But the systems that mobilized, trained and deployed the reserve components have serious flaws. In many instances, units and individuals were not as ready as they should have been because of long-standing refusals to provide sufficient peacetime resources for their training before mobilization. Planning for how and where the Guard and Reserve would be utilized was frequently weak and reactive, leading to occasions of inefficiency and unnecessary stress of the type lampooned in cartoons and novels about the military. Despite that, the main task has been accomplished. The all-volunteer active force has received the essential reinforcement it needs. The equally all-volunteer reserve component has demonstrated its ability to overcome obstacles and to fulfill the augmenting and reinforcing function that is the core of the Abrams Doctrine.

The issue now is whether this Herculean effort can be sustained for what appears to be a long period of significant demand on our nation’s military forces. Put another way, we must determine whether the National Guard and Reserve can be an operational reserve on a steady cycle of deployments for an indeterminate period.

The questions we should be asking (and answering) are:

å What do we mean by the expression continuum of service, and why is it important?

å Does the continuum of service endanger or enhance the all-volunteer force?

å How does the continuum of service support an operational reserve?

å How do we distinguish the operational from the strategic reserve?

This article seeks to develop an overall framework that defines the concept of continuum of service; identifies the place that concept occupies as an element of our national security policy; and provides a rationale for making a true continuum of service a practical reality.

Continuum of service is a human capital strategy that views active (full-time) and reserve (part-time) military service as two elements of valuable service that a qualified individual can provide. Some service members may provide exclusively active service from initial accession until discharge or retirement. However, many others will provide a mixture of active and reserve service. The continuum of service concept could be extended to include civilians who serve in various national security roles.

Viewed in this light, the factors that should determine the proportions of active and reserve service for any individual will be the needs of the nation, and the service member’s individual availability. In an all-volunteer environment, we must ask: What types of service does the nation need? Who is currently willing and able to provide that service?

A continuum of service strategy also recognizes the tremendous cost of accessing and training each service member and seeks to avoid unnecessary replication of those costs. Achieving these objectives requires policies that actively promote transition between active and reserve service in ways that meet the needs of national defense and are consistent with the practical realities of the service member’s individual, family and personal obligations. Doing so will require that Congress and the Defense Department remove many current institutional and cultural barriers that complicate the transition between active and reserve service.

Finally, the continuum of service concept recognizes that there is an extensive range of missions that reserve units and individuals can perform. This range of missions extends from merely being available for mobilization as individual replacements to performing high-tempo missions on a very frequent basis.


The key principles of the continuum of service as it applies to individuals are:

å Personnel policies should enable members to serve as frequently as they are available, under circumstances that meet their capabilities, provided those circumstances are useful to national security.

å Civilian and military leaders must scrutinize the circumstances in which reserve-component resources are used to ensure that there is true value to national security. True value is not limited to combat service, but the nation must avoid the temptation to see the reserves as a cheap labor pool. The fact that the National Guard and reserves are cost-effective must not be permitted to cause their service to be undervalued or used indiscriminately.

å An individual’s availability almost certainly will change throughout his career. The nation should use those changes in a positive way to distribute the total force across the entire spectrum of national defense requirements.

å Policymakers must recognize that there is value to the nation at every point along the individual continuum. The nation needs high-skill, high-readiness units; it needs long-lead-time individual replacements; and it needs a variety of individuals and units at varying levels of readiness between these two extremes.

å In providing for a variety of service opportunities, we must recognize that one may provide valuable reserve service as part of a large formation, a smaller crew or an individual augmentee. We must also recognize that the needs of each service will differ. One size does not fit all.


In examining the role that the reserve components should play in augmenting and reinforcing the active component, a different set of principles comes into play. However, these principles are consistent with those of the individual continuum set out above.

National security demands both a strategic and an operational reserve. The distinction between those strategic and operational elements is their level of readiness. The question to be answered is: How soon can a particular unit or individual reach full operational capability? The individual or unit in the operational reserve must be ready for employment much sooner than the strategic reserve.

Another distinguishing feature between operational and strategic reserves is the difference between a train, mobilize and deploy sequence that characterizes the operational reserve, and a mobilize, retrain and deploy sequence that applies to the strategic reserve. Meeting the latter model requires less involvement by the individual reservist, and a much smaller commitment of national resources, until the nation calls for the strategic reserve.

Both elements of the reserve — the operational and the strategic — provide people, units and individuals, for missions at home and abroad. Each service will apportion its reserves somewhat differently based on missions and requirements.

The operational reserve, composed of both units and individual augmentees, requires a more significant investment and places greater demands on its personnel compared with the strategic reserve. Those serving in operational reserve units must be fully aware of the commitment required to maintain the expected level of readiness. A similar awareness and commitment is necessary for those responsible for providing resources to the operational reserve.

Appropriate allocation of resources among reserve elements requires a specific plan for the use of reserve assets. Such a plan must be stable but subject to periodic review to insure currency. Planners must recognize and account for the readiness impact that significant changes to the plan will have.

There must be an acceptance of the idea that America is best served by a blended force, one containing active and reserve components. The benefits of such a force are not exclusively economic. The nation also benefits by enlarging the percentage of the population that has served some time in uniform and by enabling the all-volunteer force to maintain its connections with the American people.

Civilian and military leaders and planners must recognize that systematic augmentation should always be the primary option. Systematic augmentation means a disciplined, preplanned use of units and individuals to fill roles and missions for which they have trained and prepared.

One of the essential elements of such a planned approach is the recognition that use of the reserve component is not an act of desperation or a course of last resort. Rather, planners and decision-makers must see reserve-component augmentation and reinforcement as being a desirable course of action once a predetermined set of circumstances occur. This approach guards against the last-minute, reactive decisions that almost always produce bad results.

Recognizing that there will always be a degree of tension on this subject, Congress can play an important role by mandating a series of reports to ensure the services have a plan for systematic augmentation, that the plan is adequately resourced, and that reserve training and equipment will permit interoperability.

Financial implications

While the continuum of service approach to military service makes sense from a personnel utilization standpoint, we should not ignore the financial benefits that accrue to the nation. Making the best use of our military talent pool, particularly in an era of increasingly constrained defense resources, means a more capable force at a lower cost.

All military services carefully track the cost to recruit a single individual, and the cost to train that individual over the course of his initial period of obligated service. While the tracking may be less rigorous, there is also a clear understanding that follow-on training and education represent a substantial investment.

Depending on the nature of post-active-duty service, the nation enhances the return on its training and education investment when it creates a system of reserve-component service that continues to effectively use each individual’s abilities.

Finding ways to smoothly transition service members between active and reserve status is another way to be frugal as well as wise. Separation at the end of active service, regardless of the length of that service, requires an expensive process of re-recruitment and repeating the administrative processes to bring someone back into the reserve force. Our paradigm for this separation process is rooted in the idea that one “gets out of the Army (Navy, etc.)” and then “joins the reserves.” If active and reserve service is seen as simply points on a continuum, the need for much of that ponderous administrative burden is removed.

Opportunity costs must also be considered. The experienced noncommissioned officer or junior officer who leaves active duty is not replaced by a new recruit. At best, the overall talent pool remains neutral by advancement and substitution. But if the service member who leaves active duty is retained by providing additional service opportunities, the talent pool continues to grow.

This same analysis can apply at the end of a long active-duty career. Recent events have clearly shown that previously retired personnel who voluntarily return to active duty can provide great service. There is no reason that officer and enlisted personnel who chose to retire should not be provided an opportunity to continue to serve in the reserve components — without jeopardizing their already vested retired pay. If they have the skills, ability and willingness to become a part of the nation’s reserve force, it makes sense to create a mechanism for their continued service in uniform.

Relative size of active and reserve

The strength and capability of the reserve components relates directly to the size of the active component we will need. In a reserve status, military capability can be retained at a fraction of the cost of comparable active-component personnel and infrastructure. As we assess the growing percentage of the defense budget devoted to the personnel costs of the all-volunteer force, enhancing less expensive part-time capability must be considered.

During the 1990s’ downsizing, some defense analysts argued that the reserve component must remain a constant percentage of the active component, meaning that when the size of the active force is reduced, the size of the reserve force must be reduced at a corresponding rate. This argument stands logic on its head. If it is the total force that is needed, increasing the size of the reserve force will balance a smaller active force.

To illustrate how a continuum of service might be fully implemented, consider the following examples.

å Leaving active duty at the conclusion of initial obligated service: Cpl. Smith completes four years of active service in the Marine Corps and is discharged but has four years remaining on his military service obligation. While in college, he is assigned to the Individual Ready Reserve, where his only obligation is to keep the Marine Corps informed of his whereabouts. He is a member of the strategic reserve, available for mobilization and, after a period of retraining, would be a valuable individual replacement.

å Returning to active duty as an individual augmentee: At some point in her IRR service, Petty Officer Martin learns that she can return to active duty for a three-month period as an aircraft mechanic. At the end of the summer, she has made a brief but positive impact on the readiness of an active-component squadron. She returns to school, and resumes her status in the IRR. She has shifted from strategic to operational and back again.

å Service in an operational reserve unit, followed by a period of IRR duty: Capt. Jones is a team leader in a civil affairs unit of the Army Reserve. The unit trains intensively, and ultimately — as a key element of the Army’s operational reserve — the entire unit is mobilized and deploys to Iraq for a one-year active duty assignment. Upon return, he leaves this unit to continue his education but remains in the IRR. His availability may later change, and he will remain a valuable asset for many years to come.

å Reserve service following retirement from active duty: Air Force Lt. Col. Starr, an F-16 pilot, retires after 22 years of continuous active service to remain where his children attend high school. He joins the Air Force Reserve without loss of retired pay, and is assigned as an Individual Mobilization Augmentee (IMA) in the same Joint Staff directorate from which he retired. We have avoided an unnecessary waste of Starr’s training, experience and willingness to serve by making him a part of the operational reserve.

å A model apportionment of reserve-component forces between “operational reserve” and “strategic reserve” missions: An Army National Guard Task Force is the lead element of its state’s plan for a consequence management response to a variety of natural or man-made disasters. It is trained and ready to deploy in or near its home state on very short notice. It is a key element of the operational reserve. At the same time, should circumstances require, it could re-organize itself, re-orient its training and serve as a brigade for a mission in an overseas combat zone. It would take some time to complete that transition, so it is more of a strategic asset for this secondary mission. It is critically important that planners recognize the dual capability of the unit and that appropriate resources and timelines are provided for each mission.

If the nation wants an all-volunteer force without resort to a draft during the long conflict we surely face, it must have a strong and capable total force. In the coming decades, we can best achieve this goal by finding ways that allow each individual who seeks military service to maximize his potential. We can do so by constructing personnel policies that permit a free flow between the active and reserve components throughout an extended career of uniformed service.

Those policies must be matched by resource allocation plans for the utilization of the National Guard and reserves that recognize the need for both a highly ready operational reserve and a longer-lead time strategic reserve. Such a total force for the 21st century will serve the nation well in the challenging decades ahead.

LT. GEN. DENNIS M. McCARTHY (RET.) is executive director of the Reserve Officers Association.