Last week, 17,000 additional National Guard members and other reservists were mobilized for a possible war with Iraq, bringing to nearly 100,000 the number of Reserve personnel now on active duty. Since September 11, 2001, more than 144,000 men and women have answered the call, marking the lengthiest call-up since Vietnam for some units, and the largest Reserve mobilization since the 1991 Persian Gulf War.
The Reserve call-ups disrupt the daily routines of American life in a way that deployment of the active-duty military does not. Truck drivers from Texas and Louisiana, police officers and sheriffs from Utah, mechanics from Georgia, helicopter pilots from Mississippi, and laborers from Florida-all have recently bid tearful farewells to their families, taken leave of often-financially-strapped and shorthanded employers, and said goodbye to communities large and small. It has become a familiar tableau over the past decade, no less painful for its repetition.
In other words, the Pentagon's carefully calibrated "Total Force"-the name for the blending of active and Reserve units into a cohesive whole for a given mission-is working just as its architects intended when they created it 30 years ago this year. The reason for all the disruption that characterizes any large mobilization of the Reserve force is simple: In the toxic backwash of the Vietnam War, a handful of senior military officers decided that it should be difficult to take the United States to war. They wanted all parts of the population to make sacrifices, so that war would be undertaken only with broad public support.
As part of his effort to transform the U.S. military for the 21st century, however, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has said that it is too difficult and inefficient to mobilize the Total Force for action, and too stressful on increasingly over-tasked Reserve forces. So as part of a Pentagon study called the Reserve Component Comprehensive Review, Rumsfeld has asked the services and the Reserve components to consider changes in the entire active/Reserve relationship. Besides making the Guard and Reserve more relevant to an era of short-notice crises and new missions such as homeland defense and peacekeeping, the study is intended to make the active-duty force easier to mobilize without a Reserve call-up.
"It doesn't make sense to have the people who are required very early in a conflict [to be] in the Reserves," Rumsfeld told the Reserve Officers Association in a late-January speech. "We need to have those skills on active duty as well as in the Reserves, and we need to be able to live in the world we're living in."
By far the most controversial proposals associated with the ongoing review are suggestions by the Office of the Secretary of Defense that it may move some missions that are now performed primarily by Reserve forces back into the active-duty ranks. Because such a move would strike at the heart of the Total Force concept, any actual proposal to remove missions from the Guard and Reserve is likely to cause deep concern in Reserve ranks. The Reserve components, although concerned about being overtaxed, do not want to become a rarely needed and tertiary military force, for fear they would lose the resources and the prestige that come with being crucial contributors to the national defense.
"Certainly Secretary Rumsfeld's suggestion that it might make sense to move certain missions back into the active component got our attention," said Maj. Gen. Raymond Rees, acting chief of the National Guard Bureau, an office in the Pentagon that oversees federal use of the National Guard. "We think he just wants to make sure we use the Guard in wise and prudent ways. Certainly if we need to make adjustments we'll respond, just as we've responded to the current vision," Rees said. "Our strong feeling, however, is that citizen soldiers should be fully involved in all aspects of the Total Force, and what we hear Rumsfeld saying doesn't contradict that idea. He may just be saying that we need some tweaking and modification of the Total Force concept."
There is no question that as currently constructed, Total Force has placed an increasing burden on Reserve forces over the past decade, as the U.S. military has confronted a steady stream of small wars and peacekeeping missions. In the four decades of the Cold War, Guard and Reserve forces faced only two presidential activations-for the Berlin Airlift in 1948-49 and for a very limited call-up during the Vietnam War. Since 1990, in contrast, the Reserves have been activated at least six times, participating in major military missions in the Persian Gulf War, the southern and northern no-fly zones over Iraq, Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan, and now, once again, Iraq. It is not unusual to find reservists who have been called up four or even five times in the past decade.
In the process, the contribution of Guard and Reserve forces to ongoing operations has grown from an average of 1 million duty-days a year during the 1980s, to an average of 13 million duty-days per year today.
As a result, the Guard and Reserve have undergone dramatic transformations from organizations designed for mass mobilization in the unlikely event of a major war, to very active components of a Total Force engaged in peacekeeping, peace enforcement, and combat operations around the world.
"Everyone realizes that we are no longer using the Guard and Reserves like we did during the Cold War, and the paradigm of someone who is expected to train one weekend a month and for two weeks during the year really no longer applies," said Craig Duehring, principal deputy to the assistant secretary of Defense for reserve affairs. "However, while the Guard and Reserves have proven conclusively that we can count on them in places like Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan, and the Middle East-and the active component is much more willing to count on them, now that they know what to expect from the Guard and Reserve-we can't abuse them. These are people who have outside jobs and careers, and we may be approaching a limit in terms of how much we ask of them."
Any effort to relieve the burden on the Reserves and make the active-duty U.S. military easier to mobilize without Reserve participation, however, could undermine the foundation on which the Total Force rests. Born in 1973, the Total Force was directly tied in principle to the all-volunteer active-duty force that was created the same year. President Johnson had resisted a major Reserve call-up throughout the Vietnam War. Active-duty military leaders at the time never forgave the Johnson administration for failing to put the nation on a wartime footing and, as a consequence, leaving the full-time military to fight on its own, with little domestic support, for 10 years in Vietnam. The absence of a Reserve call-up also made the Guard and Reserve favorite havens for young men looking to avoid Vietnam-young men such as George W. Bush, who served in the Texas Air National Guard.
After the war ended, U.S. military brass, led by Army Chief of Staff Gen. Creighton Abrams, were lukewarm at best about the idea of establishing an all-volunteer force. They worried that it would not attract enough recruits, and that it would not require the participation of all parts of the American public. So the brass decided to make a wholesale transfer of the second- and third-tier military units that provide logistical backup for frontline units-to the Reserves. Their goal was to create a military force structure that would require a presidential Reserve call-up in the event of a wartime mobilization.
As a direct result of that policy, 70 percent of the Army's combat service support units-the service's logistical backbone-reside in the Reserve components today. The Reserve components are also home to 97 percent of the Army's civil-affairs forces, 81 percent of psychological-operations forces, 85 percent of medical brigades, and 66 percent of military police battalions. In the Air Force, Reserve components account for 64 percent of tactical airlift, 55 percent of aerial refueling and strategic tankers, 38 percent of tactical air support, and 27 percent of strategic airlift.
What Defense Department officials have discovered over the past decade-and the realization has been driven home once again since 9/11-is that the Total Force as now configured requires a presidential call-up of the Reserves even for smaller-scale operations such as Kosovo, the Iraqi no-fly zones, and Afghanistan.
For Total Force architect Abrams, that was exactly the intention. According to close subordinates, Abrams would say as much to anyone who would listen: "They're never going to take us to war again without calling up the Reserves."
To the extent that Rumsfeld's review makes it easier to deploy the active-duty force into harm's way without a call-up of the Reserves, some experts believe it will threaten to erode that fundamental principle behind the Total Force.
"I understand that the secretary of Defense is trying to migrate missions from the Reserve into the active-duty component in order to shrink the amount of time it takes them to respond to a contingency, but I fear making it possible to deploy our military without the Reserve component," said Maj. Gen. Richard C. Alexander, president of the National Guard Association of the United States, which represents the interests of the state National Guards before Congress. "That makes it more likely that a particular administration will take us to war, rather than the United States going to war as a whole nation. If you migrate more and more missions from the Reserve into the active component, I also believe the Guard and Reserve will become less relevant," Alexander said. "When you lose relevancy, you lose resources. It's as simple as that."