Shortly after the United States invaded Iraq last year and encountered the early signs of the insurgency that has been so difficult to overcome, Lt. Gen. William S. Wallace told reporters, "The enemy we're fighting is different from the one we war-gamed against."
As Iraq demonstrates, the environment in which the military and its Reserve component operate is changing dramatically. The "weekend warrior" has gone on steroids. The Army has relied more heavily on National Guard and Reserve forces as it has grappled with more frequent regional conflicts than it envisioned at the end of the Cold War – from Panama, Iraq, Somalia, Haiti and Bosnia to Kosovo, Afghanistan and back to Iraq. The Reserve component has gone from being a strategic follow-on force to an indispensable key to sustaining the difficult and unpredictable mission that a recent National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) predicts Iraq will be.
The peace dividend for the Reserve component has been to become busier and more valuable than ever before. While much has changed over the past 15 years, the concept, structure, training, equipment and manning of the military's Reserve component are still based more on fighting in the Fulda Gap than in Fallujah. What is needed is nothing short of transformation.
The Center for American Progress, Association of the U.S. Army, and Georgetown University's Center for Peace and Security Studies are jointly sponsoring a conference, Transforming the Reserve Component for the 21st Century, to consider what institutional changes are necessary in light of the changing nature of warfare; strains on the force from recent experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan; emerging homeland defense requirements in the United States; and making mobilizations more predictable and manageable for reservists who must juggle their military and civilian lives.
Many of the long-term challenges that the Reserve component confronts are evident in our current experience in Iraq, where reservists make up roughly 40 percent of the 140,000 U.S. troops currently serving. To some extent, this is what Reserve forces are supposed to do – reinforce active units that are the first to deploy overseas. The Pentagon would like to have Reserve forces on a six-year deployment cycle – a year of intensive training, then a year overseas, followed by a four-year interval to recover and retrain before another rotation. The problem is that too many soldiers who are being sent to Iraq today also served in Afghanistan or were activated in the United States after 9/11, a deployment cycle that is very close to what active duty units are experiencing.
According to a recent General Accountability Office (GAO) report, it is possible the Army will run out of Reserve soldiers in critical specialties because of limitations in Reserve mobilization authorities. As of March 2004, the average deployment time for reservists mobilized since 9/11 is already 342 days and rising fast. This means that a significant number of reservists are already halfway through their two-year mobilization cycle. There is already a rebalancing initiative underway to increase the number of military policemen, transportation specialists, civil affairs experts and other support personnel in both the active and Reserve forces, but this will take years to accomplish. In the meantime, the Army has taken the extraordinary step of holding soldiers on active duty past the end of their enlistments and reaching into its Individual Ready Reserve to increase the pool of available soldiers. This is a short-term fix that may cause long-term damage to troop morale and reenlistment rates.
The Bush administration has been rightly criticized for poor planning and the failure to commit the resources necessary to win the peace or in reality, win the war. National Guard and Reserve forces have been committed in many cases with insufficient training for the mission they are being asked to perform, and without the latest version of equipment, particularly body armor and fully protected Humvees.
The ability of additional units to cover future deployments is also in question. Reserve units normally plan on 90 to 180 days or more to train and upgrade before deploying, but many have not had that luxury. Gaps in capabilities have been plugged with volunteers from other units, which compounds problems for later deployments. The Army presumed that reservists would mobilize and deploy from bases vacated by active forces already sent to the fight. This hasn't happened, leaving reservists in sub-standard facilities with lengthy waits for access to medical care and training ranges.
Clearly, if more is expected of Reserve forces in the future, missions have to be better defined, particularly regarding homeland defense. The National Guard already has formed some civil support teams that would be called upon to detect the presence of chemical, biological or radiological dangers. More are needed. The National Guard will be heavily tasked to provide military assistance to civil authorities in the event of a future terrorist attack in the United States. In the event of attack warnings, reservists will be expected to protect critical infrastructure as has been done since 9/11.
It is clear that given new post-9/11 demands, the Guard and Reserve will require more modern equipment, new training concepts and more soldiers with critical specialties. They will need to change how they recruit, support and retain their forces. Deployments have to be more predictable.
It's unclear how much change will occur and how quickly. But we are redefining what it means to be a part-time citizen soldier in the middle of a new kind of war.
P.J. Crowley, a retired Air Force colonel, is a senior fellow and director of National Defense & Homeland Security at the Center for American Progress. He held senior positions within the National Security Council and Department of Defense during the Clinton administration.