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Reconceiving the Reserves

by Michael Tint

It’s time to design a modern system of military reserves for the demands of modern conflicts. 

The U.S. military’s reserve system is out of date and in need of overhaul. The current organization of the Reserve Force dates to the aftermath of the Vietnam War. In response to the end of the draft and declining military budgets, a policy called “Total Force” was implemented which dramatically changed the relationship between reserve and active-duty forces. Traditionally, reserve and active-duty units were organized largely separately. Reserve units were intended to allow rapid expansion of the military should the need arise. Total Force expanded the role of the reserves, maintaining their traditional role as a mobilization reserve but also but making them responsible for several types of support functions within active duty combat formations that would only be needed in wartime. This freed up active-duty manpower, allowing the military to maintain almost as many combat units as it had before the war despite the substantial reduction in end strength that followed the end of the draft. However, it also meant that it was now impossible for the military to deploy large numbers of soldiers without activating at least some reservists. Whatever the merits of this plan were in the 1970s, some of the key assumptions that underlie it no longer hold true.

The first assumption was that extended conflict implied massive military mobilization. Total Force was premised on the imperatives of fighting the Soviets in Europe, which would have required a World War II-style mobilization and made calling up the reserves a forgone conclusion. Since the end of the Cold War, however, the U.S. has found itself engaged in a relatively large number of more moderate conflicts. These have not reached the level of a Soviet invasion but have still required the long-term commitment of U.S. troops, and thus long-term activation of reserve forces. During the 1990s, reservists served an average of more than 10 million duty days a year, 10 times the Cold-War level despite reductions in the size of the reserve force. 

These stresses were bearable during the 1990s, but the last 13 years have seen even larger reserve activations, and they have laid bare the system’s flaws. The deployment of reservists in theater proved more problematic than it had in the past. Long, repeated deployments overseas led to morale problems, and the nature of the battlefield meant that supply and support units often found themselves in fierce combat for which they were neither trained nor equipped.  More fundamentally, the reserve force failed to work as a system that enabled rapid expansion of the military in a time of conflict.  The designers of Total Force felt that the Johnson Administration’s decision not to activate the reserves for the Vietnam War was a great mistake and thought that requiring the activation of small reserve units to deploy active duty units would make the activation of larger reserve combat units more politically palatable. Unfortunately, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan proved this theory false.  Like the Johnson Administration, the younger Bush Administration preferred to meet the need for additional troops by the slower and more expensive route of expanding active-duty forces rather than accepting the political liabilities of activating reserve combat units.   

The second of those assumptions was cost effectiveness. Historically, reserve units have cost relatively little to equip. Military buildups during World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, and the late Cold War each left behind far larger quantities of relatively modern equipment than were needed by active-duty forces, which resulted in equipment windfalls for the reserves. Unfortunately, the last of those windfalls is now almost three decades past, and the current generation of equipment is beginning to need replacement. For the first time in decades, maintaining reserve units will soon require equipping them with newly built weapons, dramatically increasing their cost.

The problems of rising costs and limited deployability could both be solved by using the reserves to enable active-duty forces rather than to supplement them. Instead of taking up the support roles in combat units, they could take them up in the United States by shouldering much of the logistical, administrative, and maintenance work required to sustain those combat units. Take cargo flights as an example. The U.S. military conducts an enormous number of these every day, most of which are routine. Rather than have them all flown by active duty (or activated reserve) pilots flying every day, large numbers of them could be flown by reserve pilots who fly once a month. The same principle would work with many other types of duties: certain kinds of drone piloting, missile silo tending, base maintenance, many types of depot and repair work, and more, essentially any job done in the United States which can be broken down into discrete tasks of limited duration could be turned from a full time job into several part time jobs done by reservists. 

Such a system would have enormous advantages. First, it would dramatically reduce the need for active-duty personnel to serve in support functions, allowing for a larger active-duty combat structure. This would not only increase efficiency, but some of the manpower freed up could be used to eliminate the need for deploying reserve personnel in combat units.

Second, it would create a smooth activation curve in place of an abrupt call up, making activation politically and logistically easier. For example, if more cargo flights were needed from a particular wing, it could call its reservists in for two flights a month instead of one. This would provide as much capacity as activating an entire reserve unit does now, but would spread the cost far more evenly across the force making the lives of reservists far more predictable.

Third, it would make the reserve system much more flexible. Today if some members of a reserve unit wish to deploy and others do not, there is no way to make them all happy. The time-sharing principle allows for much of the flexibility of an individual reserve system while avoiding much of the organizational difficulty inherent in its approach.

Finally, it would not impede large-scale mobilization. Reservists serving part time in support units could still, procurement dollars permitting, have designated combat units to which they would report under full mobilization, as could those with skills not needed for continental support missions

If the present system is maintained, the U.S. military will soon be forced to spend money that it can’t spare to maintain a system of reserves that it can’t deploy. Using the reserves to enable rather than supplement active-duty forces will avoid this, and create a reserve system that is more useful for the military, more flexible, and more predictable for individual reservists.   


Michael Tint holds a degree in political science from Haverford College specializing in organizational design and foreign affairs. A former congressional campaign staffer, English teacher, and circus hand, he currently works as a research assistant at the George Mason School of Public Policy.

The opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not reflect the views of their employer or Young Professionals in Foreign Policy.


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