How to Update the Army’s Reserves: Part Three



Lawrence J. Korb
Lawrence J. Korb

Such declining numbers were not always a problem. As long as the United States waged conventional war with precision-guided weapons and let other nations bear most of the peacekeeping responsibilities, it did not need a large active-duty army, and it could afford to keep many peacekeeping functions in its reserves. The war in Iraq changed all of that, however, and if the United States hopes to be able to occupy countries that large, essentially by itself, while also continuing to meet its other commitments and protect the homeland, it will have to take three steps.

First, it must rebalance its mix of personnel. More of the forces needed for an occupation, such as military police and civil affairs units, must be placed on active duty. For example, at the present time, the total Army has 5,500 men and women in its 25 civil affairs battalions, but only about 200 of them are part of the active component. And yet the Army currently needs 1,500 people with civil affairs skills in Iraq and another 500 in Afghanistan. To maintain 2,000 civil affairs personnel in those countries will require keeping about half of the reserve component on active duty continuously. Moving at least two-thirds, or 3,500, of the civil affairs personnel from the reserve to the active component would help alleviate the problem.

The situation for military police is similar. The active army has only 1,500 military police officers, whereas there are another 2,500 in the reserves (about half of whom are currently on duty). The Army is so short of military police, in fact, that it is now in the process of calling up 2,200 National Guard soldiers, mostly from artillery units, and retraining them for temporary duty as military police. To prevent this from recurring, at least 5,000 military police need to be added to the active force. Similar steps should be taken for engineers and medical personnel. All told, this would require adding about 10,000 people to the active Army.

Second, the Pentagon should increase the size of its total Army by quickly implementing the recommendations of a study sponsored by retired Vice Admiral Arthur Cebrowski, its transformation czar. The study recommends creating two division-size stabilization units of 13,000 people (one active and one reserve) trained in helping turn a battlefield victory into a political one. These units should be added to the existing Army structure, since the combat units are already overstretched.

Third, given the ongoing threat to the American homeland, the Pentagon cannot continue to allow individuals with civilian jobs that are important to homeland security to join the National Guard and reserves. Homeland defense is as integral to national security as is attacking terrorists and tyrants abroad, and it requires dedicated personnel.

Unfortunately, the Bush administration has resisted making these changes because of the expense they would incur. And indeed, making the necessary changes now will not be cheap. Keeping a person on active duty costs the government about $120,000 a year, about six times the price of a reservist. But given the size of the overall defense budget — $420 billion — the money could be found if Washington reordered its priorities. It could, for example, keep national missile defense at the research stage until the threat and technology mature sufficiently to make it necessary and prudent to deploy; doing so would save enough cash to fund about 20,000 more soldiers, the equivalent of one Army division. Similarly, scrapping the planned F-22 fighter, a Cold War-era program that is behind schedule, over budget, and plagued by technical problems, in favor of existing programs would fund another division.

It is possible, therefore, for the Bush administration to avoid repeating history — in this case, Johnson’s and Nixon’s mistakes. But to do so, Washington must rebalance the mix of active-duty and reserve soldiers in the Army. All Americans, and not just those in the military, would be better off from such a change.

Lawrence J. Korb is senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, and senior adviser to the Center for Defense Information. From 1981 to 1985, he was assistant secretary of defense for Manpower, Reserve Affairs, Installations, and Logistics.

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