The Officer July/August 2011 : Page 46

46 the NatioNal Security report s seen repeatedly in Iraq and Afghanistan, the United States relies on the Army Reserve for a significant part of its defense capabilities. The Army would have a difficult time sustaining such major operations without the Reserve Component. RAPID REACTION Army Reserve’s ‘third force’ concept deserves another look. By COL Gary C. Howard, USAR (Ret.)

Rapid Reaction

Col Gary C. Howard

Army Reserve’s ‘third force’ concept deserves another look.


As seen repeatedly in Iraq and Afghanistan, the United States relies on the Army Reserve for a significant part of its defense capabilities. The Army would have a difficult time sustaining such major operations without the Reserve Component.

But what kind of Army Reserve do we need? The discussion about the future of the Army Reserve has so far focused on only two options. In one, the Army Reserve would continue its traditional or legacy role as a strategic reserve. In the other, the Army Reserve would serve as an operational reserve to support ongoing operations on a regular basis.

Are the strategic reserve and the operational reserve our only options? In 2002, LTG James R. Helmly, then chief of Army Reserve, suggested what he called a “third force.” It would be a quick reaction force of Army reservists who might complete multiple deployments in return for additional benefits or incentives, while most of the Army Reserve would remain a legacy force, available for deployments after activation and post-mobilization training.

His concept offers a potential mechanism that might support the nation’s defense needs and help Army reservists continue to serve effectively. LTG Helmly’s third force received little attention then. But it just might work now.

From Strategic to Operational

Traditionally, the Army Reserve served as a strategic reserve for the Army. During peacetime, the Reserve Components sustained a pool of trained and available Soldiers. In national emergencies, reservists could be activated, given additional training and equipment to bring them up to Active Component readiness levels, and deployed as needed. For the nation, the Reserve Component represented a cost-effective insurance policy. For individual Soldiers, deployment was often a oncein- a-career event.

In the past decade, things have changed. The United States has been continuously at war for more than eight years in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the Reserve Component has been heavily used to support those ongoing actions. As of 2011, every National Guard brigade has deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan, and more than 300,000 Guard members have deployed in this war, according to Army Chief of Staff GEN George W. Casey Jr.Many Army Reserve Soldiers have served more than one tour of duty. Although the reservists have performed their missions well, repeated activations have put an enormous strain on the force.

To deal with those challenging conditions, the Army Reserve transformed into an operational reserve. To provide a potential steady stream of ready units, the Army Force Generation (ARFORGEN) model cycles Reserve units and Soldiers through a training program that allows for time for individual schooling and unit training for five years so that Soldiers and units are ready for possible deployment in the sixth year. Under this concept, a rotating portion of the Army Reserve will be equipped and trained for ready-to-go standards each year in case its members are needed.

“I tell people, ‘You may as well drop the term reserve out of your dictionary for us, because we are part of the operational force,’” Chief of Army Reserve LTG Jack Stultz told a group of reservists in Guantanamo in November 2010. “We can’t go back to a strategic reserve. We can’t go back to one weekend a month, two weeks in the summer, and that’s all we get.”

The Quadrennial Defense Review, a congressionally mandated, formal analysis conducted every four years to evaluate U.S. force structure, seconded LTG Stultz’s view. The review said: “Prevailing in today’s wars requires a Reserve Component that can serve in an operational capacity—available, trained, and equipped for predictable routine deployment.”

The focus on Citizen Warriors is excellent. Its emphasis on readiness and operations—that units can and will be called up—provides a sense of urgency that can easily erode over years of drill-center complacency. The cyclical nature of activations meets the Army’s need for additional force, while giving reservists a degree of predictability in their lives. A reserve Soldier knows that he or she will be home for five years and potentially activated in the sixth.

Also important, we have always known that Soldiers join the Army Reserve to do high-quality training and missions. Soldiers who have recently performed their wartime duties are even less likely to be satisfied sitting around a drill center. They must feel they are doing something important.

“The Soldiers we have signing up today for the Army Reserve are signing up to go do something. They are not signing up for a one-weekend-a-month, two-weeks-in-the-summertime Army,” said LTG Stultz. “If we go back to a strategic reserve, with tiered readiness, I think we will have a heck of a time retaining those Soldiers, because that is not what they want.”

Furthermore, LTG Stultz pointed out, “There are a lot of requirements out there today from all the [combatant commands] that are going unmet because of the demand in Iraq and Afghanistan, and I think, long-term, if we put them in the global requirements system, there will be plenty of opportunities for Reserve Component Soldiers to go do things in the future, even with a drawdown in Iraq and Afghanistan. … With a heavy concentration on combatsupport and combat-service-support capabilities, the Army Reserve has a lot to contribute toward combatant commanders’ security cooperation engagements.”

No Free Lunch

The transformation to an operational reserve, however, has brought risks. It has radically changed the relationship between the reservist and the Army Reserve, and those changes could have serious implications for the future. When the Reserve Component is really needed, it is needed in large numbers. In the past 20 years, that has happened twice: Operations Desert Shield and Storm and the current Iraq and Afghanistan operations.

Our options for a reserve force are extremely limited. There is no draft, and no political will to resurrect one. Even if political will could be found, it would take time and money to reestablish a large training base to accommodate a flood of new inductees. Thus, with no draft available, the Army Reserve and the Army National Guard are the only trained forces that can be quickly activated to expand the Army and support operations.

In addition, the relationship between the demands of the reservist’s service and civilian life is a complicated one. Reservists join or stay in the service for many reasons. Patriotism is certainly a key factor. Many enjoy the military or want to retain a connection to it after active service. Camaraderie and esprit de corps are important as well. Other factors can weigh against remaining in the service, however, including family, civilian career, and community work. Reserve Component Soldiers are always trying to balance these many factors in some fashion. Ultimately, they must weigh patriotism against the practical needs of family, civilian careers, and community responsibilities.

High-quality training, the opportunity to perform useful missions, and other factors encourage participation despite the increased time demands. Some reservists will always be able to devote unlimited amounts of time to the military or have careers that will not be hurt by repeated deployments. However, in general, the higher the demands of time and activations, the fewer reservists who will be able to continue.

Risky Business

That is really the question and the risk. Can we provide opportunities for high-quality training without driving away the very reserve Soldiers we might need in the future? The current authorized endstrength of the Army Reserve is about 205,000. How will multiple activations affect recruiting and retention? Recruiting and retention have been going well, but maintaining these numbers has been accomplished with a significant increase in cost and a decrease in quality.

At first glance, everything seems to be going right for the Army Reserve. A more careful look, however, raises concern. With the economy bad and jobs hard to find, retention and recruiting look good. But it won’t last. When the economy improves, recruitment and retention will fall, as they always do.

Things aren’t really that great for the Army Reserve either. Even with the poor economy, the Army has had to lower standards significantly to maintain strength levels. The maximum age for enlistment was increased from 35 to 42. (The Army is considering reducing the maximum age again to 35.)

Although the numbers have recently improved, high school graduates made up 71 percent of recruits in 2008, the lowest in 25 years, according to the Department of Defense. Selection rates for officer promotions are at 95 percent, significantly higher than the normal average of about 80 percent. Advertising costs tripled since 1997. Enlistment bonuses are as high as $40,000 per new Soldier, and reenlistment bonuses for select Soldiers are also that high. Recruiting has traditionally been fairly strong. From 2005 to 2010, more than 190,000 Soldiers enlisted in the Army Reserve. Since the end-strength remained essentially constant at about 205,000 through those years, we have to assume that the Army Reserve also lost 190,000 Soldiers in those same years, even with the higher reenlistment bonuses.

The Quadrennial Defense Review Independent Panel (QDRIP) had similar concerns about standards and costs: “[T]here is reason to doubt that the military can attract and maintain the requisite numbers of recruits and maintain its high quality as the economy continues to improve and unemployment declines. It is a fact that over the past decade, despite limited job creation, the force has survived only through extraordinary efforts and at substantial additional costs.”

David M. Walker, comptroller of the United States from 1998 to 2008, said in his 2010 book Comeback America: “We must consider whether our personnel costs are sustainable. I don’t believe they are. We need to engage in a comprehensive review and reassessment of how to bring them down so we can meet our national security needs in a more affordable and sustainable manner.”

Unfortunately, we might not have seen the worst. When the operations began after the attacks of September 2001, the nation was united and ready to make sacrifices. Now, years later, without a clear and immediate threat, families are becoming less understanding of why their loved ones must be away. Businesses are also becoming less supportive. Even now, complaints about employer abuses of reemployment rights are increasing and anecdotal evidence suggests we are losing midcareer officers and NCOs.

“It’s all going to depend upon whether or not Congress and the White House agree to stand up a national commission on military personnel,” said Paul Hughes, executive director of the QDRIP in an interview with The Officer last year. “If they do not, then we’re going to continue to go down the same road that we’re marching on right now, and that is to an unsustainable all-volunteer force that will either find itself changing in force structure, or finding itself being severely compromised, or finding itself losing a great deal of its benefits.”

At the same time, we have fewer young people to recruit. As the QDRIP pointed out: “Those planning to continue education beyond high school already include 85 percent of youth today. In addition, numerous surveys reveal a decline in the propensity of youth to serve. More than 75 percent are ineligible for physical, mental, or educational reasons, or due to criminal records (unless standards are reduced even further). The numbers of service influencers—people who influence our youth to enlist, … overwhelmingly family members who are veterans—are also declining in the American population.”

Looking Again at a Third Force

LTG Helmly’s third force is worth a second look. QDRIP’s Mr. Hughes recognized this strategy when he spoke to The Officer last year. “Right now [the Reserve Component is] boxed in by Cold War attitudes and procedures and requirements,” he said. “What’s not to say that you take part of the National Guard and you assign them the primary, only mission of homeland defense—whatever that might be—and then you take the Reserve, and you split them into a strategic reserve and an operational reserve.”

The Army Reserve has always had multiple ways for reservists to participate. Most Army reservists belong to a troop program unit that conducts monthly drills. However, reservists in the Individual Ready Reserve do not train monthly, but are on call if needed. Individual Mobilization Augmentees also do not usually attend monthly drills, but they fill key positions in active units when needed. Soldiers in the Active Guard Reserve program work full time in their units of assignment.

Finally, do we really need ARFORGEN? It’s not clear. Libya notwithstanding, the ongoing need for Reserve forces will likely be less as we draw down in Iraq and Afghanistan. We are far less likely to choose to go to war again. Also, the Active Component has increased its end-strength somewhat. LTG Helmly’s third force seems to offer a terrific bargain. The nation gets a rapid reaction force of trained units and individuals to support the Active Component and retains a large, cost-effective strategic reserve for exceptional emergencies. Reserve Soldiers get additional options to tailor their military careers so that they are more compatible with the needs of their civilian careers and families. Those options are important. The Army Reserve and the Army National Guard are the only pools of trained Soldiers available to relatively rapidly expand the Army. In fact, that additional flexibility might be the difference between having or not having enough Reserve Soldiers for a large-scale operation or not.

COL Howard, USAR (Ret.), was commander of the 1397th Transportation Terminal Brigade at Mare Island, Calif., and also served in battalion and company command and staff assignments in 10 units in four states. COL Howard is a principal scientific editor for an independent biomedical research institute and has a Ph.D. in biological sciences from Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh, Pa.

The National Security Report is a publication of the Defense Education Forum of the Reserve Officers Association and is intended to advance discussion and scholarship of national security issues. The views expressed in this report are solely those of the author and not necessarily those of ROA.

As of 2011, every National Guard brigade has deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan.

With the economy bad and jobs hard to find, retention and recruiting look good. But it won’t last.

“It’s all going to depend upon whether or not Congress and the White House agree to stand up a national commission on military personnel.” —Paul Hughes, Executive Director of the QDRIP

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