June 1, 2011  

A force of choice

The reserve component has become an indispensable part of the operational force

The 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review directed that a “comprehensive review of the future role of the Reserve Components” be undertaken. That mandate was carried out by a group of military and civilian defense leaders representing the combatant commands, the services and the Office of the Secretary of Defense. Additionally, other studies have been undertaken within the past year examining specific service plans for employing the total force. Although all of this work is not yet complete, it is clear that a number of basic principles have gained consensus.

Among the conclusions that might not have been expected, a consensus is forming around the idea that it is time to stop talking about an “operational reserve.” This phrase has never been consistently interpreted and has probably outlived its usefulness. Instead, as the Commission on the National Guard and Reserves and the Center for a New American Security recently pointed out, we should embrace the change the past nine years have brought, and start thinking about a reserve component that is an indispensable part of the nation’s operational force for the 21st century.

The reserve component envisioned by the reports of the congressionally mandated Commission on National Guard and Reserves is largely a new creation, unlike the reserve components of any prior era. The essential characteristics that describe the “new” National Guard and reserves are:

• Those serving in this force will be pre-trained and pre-equipped, always kept in some state of readiness for action.

• Many of the units of this force will be organized for a planned, rotational availability so that some portion of the reserve force can periodically serve on active duty as a part of the operational force of the nation, while other elements progress through varying states of recovery, retraining and readiness.

• Some members of the reserve components will be assigned, by choice, to a primarily strategic reserve, available to serve only in case of dire national emergency.

• Some units of the National Guard will focus on homeland defense missions.

• The men and women of both the active and reserve components will be able to move more seamlessly between full-time and part-time service, supported by laws, policies and systems that enable them to adjust the amount and type of their service to the normal fluctuations of life experience.

• Family members and employers will be recognized as critical elements of the 21st century total force.

Realistically, this description of the post-9/11 reserve components remains a vision in many respects. Some aspects of this vision — rotationally available forces that periodically become a part of the operational force — have become a reality, and others are becoming so. Premobilization training and equipping policies are substantially improved over those that existed at the late 1990s, but are still not entirely satisfactory. Seamless transition between components — often called a “continuum of service” — remains an elusive goal. Further progress in all areas will depend primarily on the Congress and the senior leaders in the Defense Department making the necessary statutory, resource and policy changes. The vast majority of those serving in the reserve components have already accepted this version of “the new normal.”

Historical context

Deciding whether to make those fundamental changes requires legislators, leaders and policymakers to decide whether the reserves and Guard constitute a force of necessity or one of choice. Historically, the National Guard and reserves were employed out of necessity when the regular component of the armed forces was too small for a specific task at hand. Prior to World War II, “the regulars” were a small band of professionals, largely isolated from civilian society at remote posts and stations at home or deployed around the world. This relatively small standing force required augmentation for the duration of a major action, but the national policy was to ensure that the civilian reinforcements — whether called “volunteers,” National Guard, reserves or draftees — were returned to their previous, nonmilitary lives as soon as possible after the conflict ended. These civilian reinforcements were not expected to be particularly ready or capable when called, and were presumed to desire to shed their uniforms at the earliest opportunity.

Following World War II, the nation followed its usual pattern of precipitous demobilization, only to be shocked in June of 1950 by an unanticipated attack on South Korea, requiring an equally unexpected recall of the Guard and reserves, and an urgent rebuilding of combat power. Following that experience, America decided on a much larger standing military force, but the full-time “civilian” reinforcements of this Cold War period were draftees who were called to serve for two years and then allowed to revert to nonmilitary pursuits. These draftees carried most of the augmentation and reinforcement load during Vietnam, and only a few Guard or reserve units were called to action.

With the end of the draft and the formation of an all-volunteer force in the early 1970s, there was recognition that the reserve components might again play a significant role in reinforcing the active component. Defense Secretary Melvin Laird announced a “Total Force Doctrine.” Some attention was paid to equipment and training, and capability was gradually improved. But with no significant use of this force from 1972 to 1990, many in both civilian and military leadership positions had significant questions about the combat effectiveness of the reserve component. The Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990 caused President George H.W. Bush to issue the first major mobilization order of the all-volunteer era, and many waited to see what would happen. Will they show up? Will the American people let them deploy? Can America withstand the urge to pull out if there are casualties?

The answer to each of these questions turned out to be an emphatic “yes.” National Guard and reserve units reported at nearly 100 percent strength. Cities and towns around the country turned out to provide rousing send-offs and welcome-home parades. When a Pennsylvania reserve unit was hit by a rocket attack and suffered the first mass casualties of the war, there was mourning and grief, but no call for retreat. Granted, the entire deployment to Southwest Asia was relatively brief, and actual combat was measured in hours or days, so the test was not as stern as it might have been. But the reserve components — and the nation — passed the test they were given, and a new era began.

The remaining years of the decade saw sharply increased use of the reserve components. Actual combat in Somalia, Bosnia and Kosovo involved individuals and units from the National Guard and reserves. Post-conflict deployments of National Guard formations in the Balkans and in the Sinai desert became routine. Active and reserve aircraft and crews within Air Mobility Command became so thoroughly integrated that few could tell the difference, and no one seemed to care. Marine and Navy reserves cruised around South America. Reserve leaders were detailed to significant posts around the world with increasing frequency and confidence.

The attacks of Sept.11, 2001, came with awesome suddenness, but the nation’s response was immediate. Among the first aircraft to patrol the skies over the U.S. were those of the National Guard and reserves. The first military units to respond in lower Manhattan came from the New York National Guard and Naval Militia. Within days, a national emergency was declared, and less than three weeks later, President George W. Bush authorized the mobilization of up to 1 million members of the National Guard and reserves. Since that time, more than 800,000 members of the reserves and Guard have served on active duty. As I write this, 1,137 men and women of the Guard and reserves have made the ultimate sacrifice during operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom and New Dawn, 838 of whom were killed in action. Since major combat operations began in Iraq in 2003, the number of citizen warriors serving on active duty has exceeded 100,000 almost every day.

These citizen warriors are a new breed. Every one of them who serves in uniform today either joined the Guard or reserve or made a conscious decision to remain in uniform since 9/11. In other words, they have specifically volunteered in time of war, fully realizing the implications of their decisions. They are not the “weekend warriors” of a previous era, some of whom may have seen reserve component service only as a path to career training or a better education. It is also important to note that today’s citizen warriors are supported in their decision to serve by their families and civilian employers who have steadfastly accommodated the absences that military duty demands.


And so, we return to the basic question — will the reserve components be a force of necessity or a force of choice? Will we utilize the National Guard and reserves only when we must, or because it makes good sense to do so? The right answer for the 21st century seems clear. The National Guard and reserves are an indispensable force of choice.

• As a “just-in-time” force, the reserve components allow us to expand the size of the active component with a cost-effective force that requires smaller appropriations and less costly infrastructure. Replacing their capability with a larger active force would add significantly to the cost of our defense.

• Combatant commanders want access to reserve component forces for a diverse range of missions. Reserve component forces are well-suited for military engagement and theater security cooperation missions, as they provide civilian competencies, military capabilities and the ability to form long-term relationships in host nations. Success in post-conflict reconstruction missions is also enhanced by the use of the civilian-acquired skills found in National Guard and reserve units. Building partnership capacity will be critical in the coming years.

• By continuing to use reserve-component personnel periodically, the nation preserves their readiness and continues to benefit from their training and experience. By contrast, failing to use them squanders their hard-earned level of competence. Using the reserve as a part of the operational force adds value to the previously made investment decision to fund and maintain “strategic depth.”

• The National Guard’s hometown basing, and deep connections to state and local governments, make it the ideal force to serve as the first military responders who will provide Defense Department-funded support when the nation suffers an attack on the homeland. National Guard units are also indispensable assets to their governors for a wide range of vital state missions.

• The presence of National Guard and reserve personnel throughout the country represents an invaluable and irreplaceable nexus with that large portion of the population that has no personal, family or acquaintance connection with the armed forces of the United States.

• By permitting its members to have blended careers composed of both military and civilian elements, the reserves and National Guard present an opportunity for the nation to continue to capitalize on training and education investments it has made in those who do not desire a full career on active duty.


To enable the National Guard and reserves to fulfill their potential as an “indispensable force of choice,” there are a number of specific actions that will allow the trend that began during Desert Shield/Desert Storm to complete its arc. First and foremost, the services need to invest in the readiness and capability of their reserve components within their base budgets. To date, most of the recent gains in equipping and training of the reserve components have been funded through “war supplemental” appropriations. As those funding lines inevitably disappear, reliable and continuing funding must be found to ensure that the National Guard and reserves have modern and interoperable equipment when they deploy, and the means to train on that type of equipment before deployment.

Directly related to this resourcing action will be the creation of annual service-specific plans for how and when to use their reserve components. These plans must make enough use of the reserve and Guard to keep them sharp and motivated, while avoiding excessive use that is hard to support by families and employers. Finding this balance will be more art than science, and there must be recognition that different individuals within each reserve component have differing levels of availability. Predictability is important, and one size does not fit all. Individual members of the Guard and reserve cover a wide spectrum of military specialties, civilian skills and availability for service. This diversity strengthens the force, if it is recognized and appreciated. But the commitment to use the reserve components as a part of the nation’s operational force, even without the necessity of war, is the key decision. Every study has shown that today’s citizen warriors want to be used in the right way.


One point is very clear. The men and women who decide to continue to serve in the reserve components will do so because, having proven themselves in combat, they want to continue to serve as key elements of their country’s armed forces. Every instinct I have leads me to the conclusion that, if those men and women perceive that their future service is not necessary or not valued, many of the best will move on to other activities. The consequences of such an exodus of combat-tested leaders would be tragic. So part of the motivation to continue use of the reserve component should be to retain what we have for the next (inevitable) time the nation needs to surge a combat force.

Lastly, the long-awaited “continuum of service” must become a reality. Antiquated regulations and policies have been identified as the principal barriers to seamless transition between components. Those barriers frequently represent ways of thinking about the components that were formed in the prior era when the National Guard and reserves were the force of last resort. Fundamental change in our administrative practices is essential. The 11th Quadrennial Review of Military Compensation is undertaking some ground-breaking work in this area, and all of the service personnel chiefs have committed themselves to the idea of a true continuum of service.

Changes such as those described above are reflections of a change in culture. Many of those leading the armed forces today readily admit that, in their formative years, they were not trained or educated about the reserve components. They did not think much about them, and the more honest will admit that when they did think of the reserves or Guard, it was not always in the most favorable light. Today’s emerging leaders have served in combat with the Guard and reserves, and may be open to a more favorable view. The educational institutions and training establishments of all the services are looking for ways to seize this opportunity. It is highly likely we will soon see faculty members with reserve-component expertise assigned to each of the major service colleges.

In the same way that leaders at various levels of experience are trained and educated about supporting arms and the elements of national power, future leaders must achieve an understanding that the reserve components represent an indispensable element of the total force, and that to be complete professionals, they must know how to employ the total force and all of its components. Skillful employment of the total force will be a mark of the 21st century military leader.

When Defense Secretary Robert Gates received the final report of the Commission on the National Guard and Reserves, and formally adopted the vast majority of its 95 specific recommendations, he told the military and civilian leadership of the Defense Department: “I now ask you to complete the work begun by the commission and ensure that the commission’s efforts result in lasting improvements of our national security.”

Amplifying this direction, the report of the Quadrennial Defense Review states unequivocally: “Achieving the defense strategy’s objectives requires vibrant National Guard and reserves that are seamlessly integrated into the broader All-Volunteer Force.” The reserve components are indispensable to support our nation in both peace and war, and so we must use them wisely and well. It is time to move forward and make the seamlessly integrated total force envisioned in the Quadrennial Defense Review a reality. Dennis M. McCarthy is the assistant secretary of defense for Reserve Affairs. He is a retired infantry officer who served in Vietnam, Desert Shield and Desert Storm. In 1997, he commanded the Third Marine Division and was the only Reserve general officer to command an active-duty Marine division. From 1984 until his retirement in 2005, he commanded eight Marine Corps and joint organizations, including overall command of the Marine Corps Reserve.