If future administrations plan to use National Guard and Reserve forces as an “operational reserve”—used on a recurring basis to meet critical needs at home and abroad—then the way we recruit, train, organize, equip, and support our citizen soldiers will need to change in fundamental, indeed potentially radical ways.
The Commission on the National Guard and Reserves, led by Arnold L. Punaro, issued its final report yesterday. Congress will hold hearings on its conclusions soon. The Commission deserves much credit for truly thinking “outside the box.” Its six broad conclusions and 94 separate recommendations have the potential to reshape the military every bit as much as Goldwater-Nichols did. It will challenge existing military orthodoxy regarding the hierarchy of missions, command structure, relationship between the active and reserve components, and who gets what share of the defense budget that promises to get tighter as this decade unfolds.
The Commission’s central judgment, which flows through the entire report, is that we have stumbled, without significant public debate, into a new operational model since the end of the Cold War and particularly since 9/11. The current system of how the reserve system is structured; how we pay, take care of, and support soldiers and their families; and the expectations that citizen soldiers have about time away from home and civilian jobs, is still largely based on decisions made during the Cold War and after Vietnam.
During the Cold War, the National Guard and Reserves were a “strategic reserve”—far less capable and far less costly on an average day, but a force whose readiness could be increased with sufficient warning to enable the country to fight an extended campaign against the Soviet Union in central Europe. However, with the first Gulf War, Bosnia, Kosovo, 9/11, Afghanistan, and Iraq, we are now counting on the National Guard and Reserves to potentially undertake a 12-month active duty deployment every six years—an “ideal” situation that we are not currently meeting due to the surge in Iraq.
The Commission makes clear that the “nation requires an operational reserve force.” Given the types of security challenges we will confront in the 21st century, codifying expanded responsibilities of the Reserve component, giving its units more equipment and wider capabilities, integrating separate active and reserve pay, personnel and support systems, and changing the very nature of reserve duty is necessary.
These changes would cost money, potentially lots of it, but the Commission believes this course is more realistic than the alternative: significantly enlarging the active component or resuming the draft.
A second major conclusion is that greater importance needs to be attached to domestic missions. Even today, despite Hurricane Katrina, the reserve component, particularly the National Guard, is organized, trained, and equipped for overseas missions. Domestic responsibilities such as supporting civil authorities after a natural disaster are considered “lesser included” missions that do not require, among other things, dedicated funding.
The Commission rightfully recommends that the these responsibilities should be specifically established in law, and that the Reserve component should be given lead responsibility for civil support operations; better equipped for domestic emergencies such as a nuclear, chemical, biological event or pandemic; and given an expanded role in NORTHCOM, which was established after 9/11 to handle the military’s response to domestic emergencies. It also recommends that the capabilities of the National Guard (heavy on combat capability) and the federal Reserve (heavy on support equipment more appropriate for natural and domestic emergencies) be rethought and reversed.
The Commission carefully documents the damage that has been done to the Reserve component expressly because the current administration has asked it to do more than its support system can deliver. It documents how the existing system is unable to adequately ensure access to medical care before reservists deploy and unable to properly assess the medical needs of reservists returning from Iraq or Afghanistan. The military’s inadequate response to the twin challenges of post-traumatic stress disorder and brain trauma are cases in point.
The military has also failed to develop the mechanism to support family members who, unlike their active duty counterparts, do not live near a major base. This is becoming increasingly difficult because of base closures over the past 15 years. And because we went into Iraq so unprepared, the military is still struggling to tell its reservists and their civilian employers how long deployments will be.
In short, if we are going to rely on the reserve component as an integral part of how the military fights its wars abroad and responds to disasters here at home, we have to view them differently, give them better and broader capabilities, support them in a way that is closer to how we maintain the active force, and integrate them more effectively into our operational structure. The Commission is also saying that, contrary to regular administration rhetoric, defense matters just as much as offense. The National Guard and Reserve cannot fulfill the domestic responsibilities for which they are ideally suited if they are not here, not properly equipped, and not ready.