What To Do About the Reserves

So, in the military budget wars, the Army wants to cut the National Guard. what else is new? The Army and the Guard–or, more broadly, the full-tie professionals and the part-time citizen-soldiers–have been squabbling for at least as long as such categories have existed. The professionals, understandably, tend to resent and /or demean the “weekend warriors” who, for their part, usually know how to give as good as they get. “The job of the regulars is to die in place until the reserves can show up and win”-and old refrain at least as unpopular with the lifers as those “Your Job Is My Hobby” T-shirts that reservists love to wear at inappropriate moments when on active duty. Still, the professionals and the citizen-soldiers need each other, and they know it.
But the present arrangement is volatile and, perhaps, not militarily optimal. Under the Clinton administration’s “Bottom-Up Review” pseudo-strategy, the active Army is (or should be) sized to fight two “nearly simultaneous major regional conflicts,” on in Korea and one in the Persian Gulf. Dream on: In reality, there’s no way they can do it without early and massive reserve mobilization. Even in so-called operations short of war (Bosnia, Rwanda, etc.) reserves provide critical skills that are either too expensive or too seldom used to maintain in the active forces: medical, civil affairs, translators/interpreters, graves registration, etc.

In short, the Army needs the reserves, not just for protracted major conflict, but across the entire spectrum of missions.

Today, the Army’s combat reserves reside in 15 National Guard “enhanced readiness brigades,” units of a few thousand men and women each. Keeping these units good-to-go is a major challenge, given both the inherent limits of part-time units and the Army’s own rapid modernization. These units should be exempt from any cuts.

But the National Guard also contains seven infantry divisions scattered about the country. Their value is problematic. They would probably never fight as divisions and, indeed, the entire divisional structure may no longer be the best way to organize for war. These units the Army wants to redesign. There are a number of options under consideration. One recently cited by The New York Times proposes abolishing some units, changing others from combat to support missions, and eliminating over 50,000 people.

The plan is half-sight. Restructure the Guard, yes. Cut it, no.

Militarily, expanded guard support units make sense. Reserve units cost a fraction of their active counterparts. Readiness in support units need not be an insurmountable, or even a major, problem. Although units train together only about 39 days annually, anyone who has ever served as an officer or noncom in such a unit knows that an awful lot of uncompensated work (“love of country time”) goes on. Computerized training has become a significant supplement to hands-on time. Many skills required in support units have direct civilian counterparts (unlike, say, calling in air strikes). Further, Guard units display high levels of cohesion; the same people may serve together for decades.

Finally–a fact not often acknowledged–Guard and reserve units contain their share of combat vets. By the late 1970s, there were more Vietnam veterans in the reserves than in the active forces. Many served in Desert Storm. Today, there may well be more Persian Gulf vets in the reserves than on active duty.

And there are reasons beyond the military why the Guard should not be slashed. Under the “Total Force Policy” adopted after Vietnam, the Army was structured to be unable to fight a major war without the reserves. Which meant–the Army could not go to war with out sufficient popular support to mobilize the reserves. It would be politically imprudent to reverse this policy by trying to size the present active force to fight alone–imprudent as well as fiscally impossible. Indeed, if anything, the Guard should be more closely involved in Bosnia-type operations.

Finally, the United States has become a nation of military illiterates. No one under the age of 45 has been drafted. The Guard provides one of the last personal links between the American people and the military. While fears of a Prussian-style military caste are groundless, the problems of a people out of touch with what a military is about is not.

It’s a link that ought to be preserved.

Philip Gold

Dr. Philip Gold is a senior fellow of the Discovery Institute, and director of the Institute's Aerospace 2010 Project. A former Marine, he is the author of Evasion,: The American Way of Military Service and over 100 articles on defense matters. He teaches at Georgetown University and is a frequent op-ed contributor to several newspapers. Dr. Gold divides his time between Seattle and Washington, D.C.