How to Update the Army’s Reserves: Part Two



Lawrence J. Korb
Lawrence J. Korb

After getting off to a predictably rocky start, the new system began working reasonably well. By the mid-1980s, the avf became the most professional, highly qualified military the United States had ever fielded. When reservists were called up for the Persian Gulf War or for peacekeeping duties in the Balkans or the Sinai, they were never kept on duty for more than six months. In fact, many reservists actually volunteered to go. Moreover, active-duty forces sent on peacekeeping missions were also rotated home after six months and were not deployed overseas again before spending at least a year at home.

This system began to break down, however, after September 11, 2001. When Donald Rumsfeld had taken charge of the Pentagon nine months earlier, he had done so with a mandate to transform the military by ensuring that its weapons systems and tactics took advantage of advances in technology. He had not, however, focused on the question of the balance between active-duty and reserve soldiers, which became a critical issue once the country went to war in Afghanistan and Iraq. The Quadrennial Defense Review, released one month after the September 11 attacks, did not alter the mix of active-duty and reserve troops. Nor did the plans for the invasion of Iraq. According to Thomas Hall, the assistant secretary of defense for reserve affairs, the Pentagon’s civilian and military leadership has been aggressively studying this issue for almost two years. But as yet, no action has been taken. In his first press conference of 2004, Rumsfeld admitted that rebalancing the way reserve forces are used would be his first priority for the coming year. But he also said that he has seen no evidence to support calls to increase the size of the active Army from its current level of 480,000.

Thanks to such inaction, the percentage of military functions currently allocated to the reserves is substantially the same as it was in 1973 — and better represents that era than the present one. Reserves currently account for 97 percent of the military’s civil affairs units, 70 percent of its engineering units, 66 percent of its military police, and 50 percent of its combat forces. Moreover, the size of the active-duty Army has shrunk: at 480,000, or 34 percent of the total U.S. military, it is currently proportionally smaller than at any time in U.S. history.

Since September 11, this split has led to several problems, which have been exacerbated by poor planning for the postwar transition in Iraq and the inability of the United States to get substantial troop contributions from other nations. These problems fall into four categories. First, the Army is now severely overstretched. It currently has nearly 370,000 soldiers deployed in 120 countries around the globe. Of its 33 combat brigades, 24, or 73 percent, are engaged overseas. Not only does this leave the United States potentially vulnerable in places such as the Korean Peninsula, but it also means that many combat units are sent on back-to-back deployments or have had their overseas tours extended unexpectedly.

This means that about 45,000 soldiers now serving abroad may be deployed again immediately after their current missions. The First Brigade of the 82nd Airborne Division was sent to Iraq in January of this year, even though it had returned from Afghanistan only five months before. Meanwhile, the Third Infantry Division, which liberated Baghdad in early April 2003, has had its tour in Iraq extended at least five times. One soldier of this unit was so frustrated that he told a New York Times reporter in mid-June, "You call Donald Rumsfeld and tell him our sorry asses are ready to go home." A month later, however, in mid-July 2003, Lieutenant General John Abizaid, the head of U.S. Central Command, announced that all Army units would have to spend a full year in Iraq, double the normal tour for peacekeeping duties.

The second consequence of the failure to reorganize the military’s personnel structure in the face of its new missions is that several National Guard and reserve units have been mobilized without reasonable notice, kept on active duty for longer than anticipated, and sent overseas to Iraq and Afghanistan without effective training. Members of the Michigan National Guard, for example, were sent to Iraq with only 48 hours notice. The Maryland National Guard’s 115th Military Police Battalion, meanwhile, has been mobilized three times in the past two years, and by the end of their last tour will have remained on active duty for 18 months. This is all despite the fact that, according to Lieutenant General James Helmly, the commander of the Army Reserve, a reserve soldier should be given at least 30 days’ notice before being mobilized and should not be kept on duty for more than 9 to 12 months in a 5- to 6-year time frame.

The third problem created by these mobilizations is that many of the reservists who have been called up without proper notice and kept on duty too long happen to be police officers, firefighters, and paramedics in their civilian lives — that is, first responders who are vital to the safety of their local communities. For example, almost 25 percent of the troopers in one West Virginia Police unit have been mobilized for reserve duty. When these personnel are called up for military service and kept active for long periods, it can reduce the ability of their communities to deal with terrorism.

The fourth problem with the current system is that it has led to a decline in the overall readiness of the Army. In fiscal year 2003, the Army had to cancel 49 of its 182 scheduled training exercises. The four divisions returning from Iraq in the first five months of this year will not be combat-ready again for at least six months, since their equipment has worn down and their war-fighting skills have atrophied while they were doing police work. Only two of the Army’s ten active divisions are ready for conflict outside Iraq and Afghanistan.

Of course, in wartime, every citizen can expect some privations, and this is more so for soldiers than for civilians. But the Bush administration has exacerbated personnel problems by cutting back benefits that the military and their families receive. Some of the cuts may have been necessary, but their timing fueled the perception of disregard for the well-being of the same troops the administration relies on to defend the country.
Morale hazard

According to a recent survey of U.S. troops in Iraq by the military’s own Stars and Stripes newspaper, the Bush administration’s approach to Iraq risks doing to the avf what Vietnam did to the conscript service. After polling almost 2,000 troops, Stars and Stripes found that approximately one-third of them thought the war against Saddam Hussein had been of little or no value and that their mission lacked clear definition. A full 40 percent said that their missions had little or nothing to do with what they had trained for. And most ominously, about half of the soldiers surveyed indicated they will not reenlist when their tours end and the Pentagon lifts the "stop-loss order" now in place, which prevents troops from retiring or leaving the service when their enlistment contract expires.

Were it not for this stop-loss policy, which even high-ranking officials admit is inconsistent with the principles of voluntary service, the avf and the Total Force would already be in severe jeopardy, lacking the personnel to complete their missions. For example, as one infantry battalion commander deployed in Kuwait and headed for Iraq recently told The Army Times, he would have lost a quarter of his unit in the coming year had it not been for the order. Through a series of such stop-loss measures, the army has prevented 24,000 active-duty troops and 16,000 reservists from leaving its ranks. Yet even with these rules in place, the Army Reserve missed its reenlistment goals for fiscal year 2003.

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Lawrence J. Korb

Senior Fellow