June 1, 2013  

How not to build a Total Force

Why the Army doesn’t need a reserve affairs functional area

In the April issue of Armed Forces Journal, Col. Paul Shelton suggests that the Army create a reserve affairs functional area. These officers would advise senior leaders on the best ways to use reserve component forces, as well as steering them away from common pitfalls that reduce efficiency. He argues that such officers would help the Army as it seeks to better integrate the reserve and active components, as directed by the 2008 Defense Department directive and the service’s own 2012 Total Force implementation plan for the Active Army, Army Reserve and Army National Guard.

I disagree. The way to integrate the Army, or any other force, is to make it less costly for the entities to come together, not more. A proposal to add staff and overhead costs without increasing the force’s ability to execute its missions won’t survive, especially in contemporary sequestration times.

Moreover, my experiences as a (recently retired) Army Reserve officer indicate that the problems of reserve-active integration do not stem from a lack of advocates for the reserve components’ peculiar requirements and abilities, but from an institutional bias against viewing reservists and guardsmen as peers to active-duty troops. This is heightened by a lack of compatible processes and systems that could make the use of reserve components more efficient and effective. Such needlessly dissimilar processes include training requirements and courses, pay and personnel systems, and more.

Establishing an additional staff position or function is a Band-Aid, not a real solution. Further, this is unlikely to be a highly sought-after job or functional area; few officers will view it as particularly career-enhancing. Moreover, and the bottom line here, adding a new specialized staff officer skill set to the mix will not guarantee a better product at the pointy end of the spear.

No Special Needs

Certainly, the Army has been wrestling for decades with the best way to combine the diverse skills and traits of the various parts of the Total Force. Shelton properly recognizes that this most recent push for integration will be challenging. But his proposal would bring a new, separate position and skill set into things without actually changing the way the components integrate and operate. It settles for managing a symptom and does not target the cause.

Far from an innovation, it is essentially a traditional approach to a nontraditional increase in mission and responsibility: a growth in organizational compartments and specializations at staff levels. Another word for it is “staff mission creep.” Shelton captures, very well, the things this officer would, could and should do, but I think those things are better suited to be a part of existing functions and positions. In fact, they are already, at least technically. This is one of the many reasons for much of the Army Reserve general officer and senior staff positions already assigned to the Chief of the Army Reserve, Pentagon and Joint Chiefs of Staff. This would suggest those officers are not doing these things, when in fact they are.

Moreover, it would effectively make reserve component soldiers an even more “special” category unto themselves. I was trained to be a combat engineer who could “fight as infantry when needed.” The other Army branches preached similar doctrines, at varying levels of intensity. (Of course, it is not all about the infantry, but about integrating all skill sets and expertise.) But, trite as this sounds now — and even as it did at the time — it was intended to drive home and illustrate what we are delivering and what we need to be prepared to do in order to deliver it — without special advocates to make sure our special needs were addressed.

Over my 32 years in the Army Reserve, I have seen it grow, decline, transition, transform and a bunch of other 85-cent words that describe the management flavors of the month. As a result of geography, intention and maybe some dumb luck, I have been part of the Reserve’s effort to do exactly what the Army’s September 2012 Total Force directive directs and intends. In 1999, after company command and an assortment of primary battalion staff positions, I commanded a battalion composed of both active component and reserve component soldiers and leaders. Yes, as an Army Reserve soldier, I commanded and rated active component officers and noncommissioned officers. This was one of the first peacetime units of its kind, and it caused great concern for our careers. But as we earned credibility, we proved this was not a career-ender for any of us. Furthermore, this kind of active component/reserve component organization was not the aberration many predicted.

I went on to command a USAR basic training battalion that included an 18-month mobilization to Fort Jackson, S.C., where, once again, we fought the perception that Army Reserve soldiers were somehow not real soldiers. I ran into many peers and superiors who expressed their surprise that we reservists could hang with the Big Dogs, or active component. Such unintentional patronization was hardly debilitating, yet it was emblematic of our constant struggle to overcome bias and be recognized as legitimate soldiers. We did this, repeatedly, with each new active-component leader and peer, but it took a while to overcome the mindset developed over years. A dedicated reserve affairs advocate at the Department of the Army or even Training and Doctrine Command would not have mitigated this.

The recent conflicts, in which the USAR was invited to “come play” because there was no other way to rally the forces necessary to the directed operating tempo, allowed reserve component units to prove their mettle as legitimate soldiers with the resident skill set to be able to execute an active component organization’s mission. That we did is not in dispute. Certainly, the cynic will cite those organizations that failed and the advocate will cite those that succeeded. However, more — many more — have succeeded than not. Kind of like active component organizations.

Still, the greatest advance in this arena will be when the reserve component is seen by active component peers as true peers, here to do a professional job, and not civilians on a military vacation. This will not happen by creating another specialty that highlights active and reserve component differences. We need to continue integrating the two sectors of the Army to create one Army — made up of soldiers — some of whom who are active component and some reserve component, not kludged from the various pools.


Shelton’s proposal may have a place in a world of unrestricted resources and organization abilities, where we might afford such specialized growth. But what he advocates is permanent staff growth without a true change in the moving, shooting and communicating portion of the Army.

Our efforts are better spent growing operationally similar, streamlining processes and systems that sync up active and reserve component organizations. These include making personnel and pay systems compatible, designing more training to accommodate the needs and advantages that reserve component soldiers bring to the table and so forth.

This is not served by setting up the reserve component as a special-interest group. We must see and use the reserve component as peers to the active component, like the type-model-series member of the Army mainstream that they are. AFJ