Number of Reservists on Active Duty Halfed
The number of military reservists on active duty is down to nearly half of what it was at the peak of the Iraq War and is expected to decline further. Unfortunately, most of that dropoff reflects, not a change in mission requirements, but adherence to a 24-month deployment limitation.
The number of Reserve and National Guard troops on domestic and overseas missions has fallen to about 138,000, down from a peak of nearly 220,000 after the invasion of Iraq two years ago, a sharp decline that military officials say will continue in the months ahead. The decrease comes as welcome relief to tens of thousands of formerly part-time soldiers who, with their families, employers and communities, have been badly stressed by their long call-ups for duty in Afghanistan and Iraq. Reserve and National Guard members from all of the armed services make up about 35 percent of the troops in Iraq, a share that is expected to drop to about 30 percent by next year; the vast majority are from the Army Reserve and Army National Guard.
But as these returning troops settle back into their civilian lives, the Army is running perilously low on its Reserve and National Guard soldiers who largely fill certain critical support jobs, like military police and civil affairs officers and truck drivers. Marine Corps reservists are facing similar constraints. A main reason for the shortages is that more and more of these troops who have been involuntarily mobilized are nearing their 24-month maximum call-up limit set by the Bush administration, military personnel specialists say.
The Army says it has found ways to handle the dwindling pool of reservists eligible to fill the support jobs, but some members of Congress, senior retired Army officers and federal investigators are less sanguine, warning that barring a reduction in the Pentagon’s requirement to supply 160,000 forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, or a change in its mobilization policy, the Army will exhaust the supply of soldiers in critical specialties. “By next fall, we’ll have expended our ability to use National Guard brigades as one of the principal forces,” said Gen. Barry McCaffrey, a retired four-star Army commander who was dispatched to Iraq last month to assess the operation. “We’re reaching the bottom of the barrel.”
Peter B. Bechtel, deputy chief of the Army’s war plans division, acknowledged that the situation posed difficulties but said there were solutions. “There are some concerns for the long-term access to the Reserve component,” he said. “But it does not pose an insurmountable challenge.”
Aside from reinstituting the draft, a non-starter for a variety of reasons I’ve detailed repeatedly, the most obvious solutions are to cut back on the number of forces doing non-essential missions and/or for Congress and the president to modify our mobilization policies.
Politically, the former is much easier. A sizable portion of the active military is engaged in tasks that do not place them in contact with the enemy or even in direct support of those so engaged. That is true even of soldiers with combat skill specialties such as infantry officers who are assigned to functional area duties doing office work. Many of those jobs could be done by civilian civil service workers or even private contractors. Additionally, we could divert more forces from Europe and elsewhere to the Middle East.
While much more difficult, the 24-month limitation on deployments might have to be revisited. It makes sense to limit the call-ups of part time soldiers for missions such as peacekeeping duty in Bosnia or humanitarian relief in Mozambique. When the country is actually at war, however, I fail to see the logic. Through at least World War II, it was simply expected that soldiers would serve for the duration of the conflict. That ethic may need to be reinstituted.