Reserve System Needs Change

NYT — Changes Urged as Need Grows for Reservists [RSS]

The National Guard and Reserves must be fundamentally revamped if they are to carry the growing burden placed on them in support of the administration’s military strategy, according to many commanders, Pentagon officials and respected national security experts. With hundreds of thousands of these citizen-soldiers having deployed in the combat zones of Afghanistan and Iraq, and others engaged in missions related to the global campaign against terrorism overseas and here at home, these concerns have broad implications for the Bush administration’s plans to protect the United States. Already, the length and number of their tours and the numbers of their members killed and wounded have imposed unexpected stresses on the Guard and Reserves. Less recognized have been the challenges faced by the military in relying so heavily on these soldiers, who have not always been as well trained and equipped as active-duty members.

The system for training, equipping, mobilizing and deploying reservists was not ready for the historic increase in call-ups since the Sept. 11 attacks, officials acknowledged. The Guard and Reserves clocked nearly 63 million duty days last year, more than five times the 12 million duty days recorded annually in the late 1990’s. As of Wednesday, 156,236 citizen-soldiers were on active duty, with the vast majority — 130,912 — from the Army National Guard and Reserves.

That responsibility is expected only to increase. Guard and Reserve members make up approximately 40 percent of the American forces committed in Iraq and Afghanistan today, and Pentagon war planners said this week that the burden assigned to these formerly part-time soldiers is expected to push toward 50 percent in future deployments. “When you look at the current structure of the Guard and Reserve, I think it’s becoming clearer and clearer that it’s not sustainable,” said Derek B. Stewart, director for military personnel issues at the General Accounting Office, an investigative arm of Congress. “It’s very clear that if you’re going to sustain the global war on terror, you’re going to need to beef up certain specialties,” he added, citing in particular military police and intelligence. “And you’re going to have to restructure, and definitely take another look at the mix and configuration of what is in the Reserve component and what is in the active component.”

Sadly, this need has been all-too-obvious since the end of the Cold War. Indeed, when I began my dissertation in 1993, I was initially going to write about the way the armed forces needed to restructure. After a few months of research, it became clear that the experts pretty much agreed on the nature of the changes required–they just weren’t being made. Certainly, the Iraq War and the war on terror generally have put an additional strain on the force. But most of these problems were obvious long ago and could have been undertaken before the present crisis.

The current Guard and Reserve system was designed after the Vietnam War, a conflict in which neither President Lyndon B. Johnson nor President Richard M. Nixon called up reservists in significant numbers, fearing greater opposition to their policies. In frustration, Gen. Creighton W. Abrams, the Army chief, shaped a post-Vietnam mix of active and Reserve forces to ensure that when America went to war with its new all-volunteer force, hometown America would have to go, too.

For the next two and a half decades, the Guard and Reserves provided help to governors in handling floods, fires, earthquakes and riots, and provided reassurance to combat commanders that a large Reserve force would be ready in case of a major war. The system allowed the first President Bush to mobilize necessary Reserve forces for the Persian Gulf war of 1991. But the system was intended to mobilize these soldiers and then send them home quickly. It was not designed to maintain reservists on duty for either the tempo or the scope of current military commitments around the world.

That’s simply untrue. The system was designed so that the Reserves would always be mobilized for the duration of a war. The problem is not that they’re being called up for things like combat in Iraq and Afghanistan–that’s their entire reason for existence–but rather that they’re being called up for routine peacekeeping and other non-emergency operations. That’s what they’re not designed to handle. Of course, if one has joined the Reserves since 1993 or so, it’s been obvious that the mission had changed in that direction, so it’s difficult to generate much sympathy for whining about “I didn’t sign up for this.”

Military commanders frequently said in private that a number of reservists arrive for duty ill-prepared for the challenges they face in places like Iraq and Afghanistan, in particular lacking specific combat skills required even of truck drivers. They say the reservists also do not have something more intangible but equally important: a warrior ethos, which can hardly be inculcated with one weekend a month and two weeks a year of training, or in the weeks of accelerated training before deployment.

During the huge troop rotation this spring, in which nearly a quarter-million American military personnel flowed in and out of Iraq, fresh ground forces stopped first at deployment camps in northern Kuwait to acclimate to the hot temperatures and focus on live-fire combat skills. Despite spring temperatures that already pushed toward 100 degrees, and the relative safety of camps in Kuwait, commanders of active-duty units like the First Infantry Division ordered their soldiers to wear heavy helmets and flak jackets at all times except inside their tents and mess halls or en route to the showers, all part of an effort to get the troops into the combat mind-set.

In contrast, many soldiers who identified themselves as reservists walked the hot and dusty bases in shorts, baseball caps and sandals. Even inside the war zone of Iraq, the differences were visible. Col. Dana J. H. Pittard, commander of the First Infantry’s Third Brigade, gave voice to worries about the lackadaisical approach to security shown by some reservists not under his command. On a dangerous 34-hour convoy drive north from Kuwait to Camp Warhorse, near Baquba, an insurgents’ stronghold, he marched up and down a mile-long row of vehicles belonging to a mix of units, scolding scores of reservists he spotted not wearing body armor. “This is your hat,” he said, thumping his helmet with a fist. And pounding his own flak vest, he said: “And this is your shirt. Don’t take them off for the next 13 months.”

Quite right. It was never an issue for us during Desert Storm–none of us took any clothing that wasn’t camouflage. (Granted, it was woodland camouflage, since they’d issued all the desert cammies to National Guard folks who manned the shower points in the rear area. But it was camouflage.)

Phil Carter notes that a major solution to this problem is improving RC leadership training and ensuring that they get the same equipment as the active folks.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. James Joyner says:

    There’s never been any expectation that Reserve mobilizations would be short term. In 1973, when the current structure was put into place, the expected use was World War III.

    All wars that the U.S. has fought since 1814 or so have been “optional” in the sense of being for something other than repelling an invasion.

  2. Keith says:

    Your snarky little comment:

    “(Granted, it was woodland camouflage, since they’d issued all the desert cammies to National Guard folks who manned the shower points in the rear area. But it was camouflage.)”

    is a huge part of the problem. Active duty troops love to bitch and to disparage the NG.

    FYI, I was with a NG unit attached to the 18th ABN Corp during Desert Storm who went in to Iraq (on the heels of the 3rd ACR) on the first day of the ground war, all without Desert Cammies. I wasn’t on the bleeding edge but it was within earshot. I got my first pair of desert camo after the war was over. If you want to complain about not having desert camo, blame it on the Air Force…they all seem to have it on their plush bases in Saudi. Like they really need it in their air-conditioned buildings! Idiotic political correctness caused the shortage of Desert camos for Army troops not the NG.

  3. Unfortunately, the shortages in today’s Guard and reserve run much deeper than the color of their camoflauge. Many Guard units I saw (and served with) lacked basic warfighting equipment — or had equipment that was significantly older than their soldiers. They also lacked training time, training resources (ammo, batteries, fuel, spare parts), military schools allocations, etc. The reserve unit I served with was much better, largely because it was a Civil Affairs unit so it was part of Special Ops command. But it too had shortages.

    If we’re going to expect our reserve warriors to fight alongside active-duty troops, we need to set them up for success by giving them the tools and resources they need. I don’t think anyone will dispute that. But to date, neither Congress nor the Pentagon wants to put its money where its mouth (or rather, mobilization orders) is.