Are We Wearing Out the Guard and Reserve?

Feb. 1, 2001

A funny thing happened recently during a lunch break at the crowded chow hall at Tuzla AB in Bosnia.

Charles L. Cragin, the Pentagon’s top official for reserve affairs, was visiting the base on a Balkans trip. He asked a table full of enlisted members to state where they were from and what they did. To exclamations of surprise from fellow troops, a number of those present identified themselves as reservists.

“These young [active duty] service members were saying, ‘I didn’t know you were a reservist!’ ” Cragin recalled, “but that’s how integrated today’s force has become.” Cragin went on, “You don’t hear the active duty guys using the old disparaging comment about ‘weekend warriors’ much anymore, because our reservists are showing a full-time commitment.”

And so it has gone as Cragin has traveled to 42 states and 18 foreign countries, checking in on reservists on the front line of ongoing operations. There were Air National Guard F-15 and F-16 units on 17-day deployments to Turkey, flying combat missions over Iraq within 48 hours of their arrival in the region. Cragin encountered another ANG unit on deployment to New Zealand.

There were Air Force Reserve Command personnel supporting operations in Southwest Asia. In the Balkans last year, the Texas National Guard’s 49th Armored Division conducted a historic tour in command of the US sector in Bosnia. This marked the first time since the Korean War that an entire Guard unit was given headquarters command over active troops. In 1996, the Air Force took the unprecedented step of placing an AFRC colonel in command of active, ANG, and AFRC forces at Tuzla when it found itself short of eligible active personnel to fill the position.

The remarkable pace and diversity of ongoing reserve operations largely reflect how the demands of the post-Cold War era are, to varying degrees, transforming all of the armed services.

After a continuous stream of peacekeeping, peace enforcement, and Smaller-Scale Contingency deployments to Iraq, Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, and Kosovo, the US military is evolving into a more-expeditionary force that views smaller crises and operations other than war as part of its normal routine. Many senior military leaders have come to the conclusion that the United States has little choice but to engage in such operations if it is to maintain its leadership of alliances and keep regional problems from becoming full-blown wars.

That, certainly, is the view of Gen. Gregory S. Martin, the commander of US Air Forces in Europe. “If we’re going to try and help shape the world environment for peace and prosperity, and ultimately keep open the markets that will allow nations to flourish, I don’t see these ‘engagement operations’ decreasing,” Martin said during a talk in his office at Ramstein AB, Germany. “In fact, I think we’ll find our presence is required in more places in the future.”

Adapting for Small Wars

USAF took a major step in adapting to those demands in late 1999 when it began organizing its combat forces into 10 Aerospace Expeditionary Forces. That move followed signs of serious personnel strains as the Air Force has sent units and individuals on successive deployments to support peacekeeping operations in the Balkans and peace enforcement duties in northern and southern Iraq. The AEF reorganization is designed to put predictability into those operations by limiting an individual to one three-month deployment during any given 15-month cycle.

Reserve forces now account for roughly 10 percent of each AEF and so are serving alongside their active counterparts in virtually all ongoing Air Force operations. That contribution of reserve forces to operations is also mirrored in the other services. Arguably no component of the US military has been more transformed by the demands of peacekeeping and other SSCs than the Guard and Reserve.

In the four decades of the Cold War, Guard and Reserve forces faced two Presidential call-ups-for the Berlin Airlift and a tightly restricted call-up during the Vietnam War. Today, for the first time in history, the Reserves are deployed on active duty under three separate Presidential reserve call-ups. Those are operations in Bosnia and Kosovo and for the no-fly operations over Iraq.

Meanwhile, despite a force cut during the 1990s drawdown of roughly 300,000 troops, reserve forces are contributing about 13 million duty days annually to ongoing operations, a 13-fold increase over the 1980s level of roughly one million duty days. That is equivalent to adding 35,000 troops–or roughly two Army divisions–to active duty end strength.

In the process, the Guard and Reserve have been transformed from organizations designed for mass mobilization in the unlikely event of a major global war to fully contributing members of a Total Force actively engaged in peacekeeping, peace enforcement, and combat operations around the world.

“In the roughly 30 years I served in the reserves, the reserve community generally believed they would not be called up unless there was a major military event like the Soviets pouring through the Fulda Gap,” said Cragin. “Today I know reservists who have been called up four times in the past decade. The reality is the active duty force can’t do anything without relying on the reserves.”

A Critical Milestone

The seminal event in the transformation of the reserve forces occurred during Desert Shield in 1990, the buildup to the Persian Gulf War. In contemplating a massive deployment of US forces to the region, the Bush Administration quickly realized that it would have to order the first Presidential call-up of the reserves in decades.

The reason dated back to the original deal establishing the all-volunteer Total Force in 1973. President Johnson had resisted a major reserve call-up throughout the Vietnam years so as not to disturb his campaign for Great Society programs. He thus failed to put the nation on a war footing and, as a consequence, left the active force to fight on its own for more than eight years.

Afterward, US military leaders, led by Gen. Creighton W. Abrams, Army Chief of Staff, decided to make a wholesale transfer of combat support forces to the reserves. The result was the emergence of a military establishment purposely configured to require a Presidential reserve call-up in the event of a major mobilization.

With 70 percent of the Army’s combat service support residing in reserve forces, the Army in 1990-91 was incapable of sustaining itself in a large-scale deployment without reserve participation. In the end, 265,000 reservists were called up in 1990-91 for the Persian Gulf conflict.

Even in confronting the Smaller-Scale Contingencies that followed in the 1990s-including Haiti, Bosnia, Kosovo, and the Southwest Asia no-fly zones-DoD officials realized that Presidential reserve call-ups would be essential. Not only did active duty forces stressed by a high operations tempo need to share some of their burden, but also some of the skills most critical to peacekeeping operations in particular turned out to be reserve specialties.

“The way the military is configured today, many of the skills critical to peacekeeping operations and smaller contingencies reside almost exclusively in the reserves,” said Cragin.

For instance, he notes, the reserve components are home to 97 percent of the Army’s civil affairs forces; 82 percent of its public affairs forces; 81 percent of psychological operations forces; 66 percent of military police battalions; and 85 percent of medical brigades.

In the Air Force, ANG and AFRC forces 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.

“The numbers illuminate a central fact about America’s post-Cold War military: namely, that we cannot undertake sustained operations anywhere in the world today without calling on reserve assets to get the job done,” said Cragin.

Bitter Divide

The first major combat test of the Total Force during Desert Shield and Desert Storm validated the concept in the eyes of many analysts. However, it did leave bitter feelings between the active duty Army and Army Guard. The bad blood resulted from the Army’s decision that three Army Guard “round-out” brigades were not sufficiently combat-ready to deploy to the Gulf to augment active duty combat divisions.

Army officials argued that investigations showed that the Guard brigades were woefully unprepared for combat. Guard officials continued to believe the decision was an affront to their warfighting capabilities.

That experience stood in stark contrast to that of the Air Force and its reserve components, who in Desert Storm proved their ability to rapidly deploy and fight alongside one another, thereby putting to rest any doubts about the combat capabilities of ANG and Air Force Reserve units.

The lingering animus between the Army and Army Guard, however, exploded into open warfare during the 1997 Quadrennial Defense Review. Noting that the active duty and Army Reserve forces each had been reduced by more than a third since the end of the Cold War-compared with only a one-fifth reduction for the Army Guard-Army leaders proposed that the Guard take the lion’s share of a proposed 45,000-troop reserve force cut by 2002. (The active Army was to be cut by an additional 15,000 during that time, the Army Guard by 38,000, and Army Reserve by 7,000.)

Given estimates at the time that it would take nine to 12 months to prepare a Guard heavy combat division for war, the Army had also resisted writing the eight Guard divisions into their war plans.

Convinced that the Army had set them up during the QDR, Guard officials launched an unusually harsh campaign to reverse proposed cuts. Led by the Guard’s state adjutants general, the campaign won widespread support from many governors and members of Congress. Nearly half the nation’s governors wrote President Clinton to protest the 38,000-troop cut in Guard strength.

“Obstinate Shortsightedness”

“Because of the Army Staff’s obstinate shortsightedness, the Total Army … that won the Cold War is on the brink of extinction,” said a 1997 paper issued jointly by the Adjutants General Association of the United States and the National Guard Association of the United States. “Because of the Army Staff’s obvious personal desire to eliminate the Army National Guard as military competition, the adjutants general are shocked by the entire process.”

Defense Secretary William S. Cohen’s aggressive response to quell the controversy in 1997 accelerated the integration of the active and reserve force components so evident today. Under the deal that was eventually struck, the Army reserve forces would take a 20,000-troop reduction rather than the 45,000 proposed under the QDR, with the other 25,000 deferred until the next Quadrennial Defense Review in 2001. The Army Guard agreed to transform 12 combat brigades into much needed support units. Many of its remaining combat brigades would receive front-line equipment and better training under the Army’s “First to Fight” funding scheme.

The Army is still in the process, reserve officials say, of writing the Guard divisions into their war plans, a potentially controversial move that is likely to require more robust funding for identified Guard units.

Additionally, the Pentagon is moving forward with creation of two integrated divisions comprising six Army Guard enhanced brigades led by active duty cadres. Cohen also created two new JCS staff positions, each filled by a two-star general from the Guard and Reserve, to advise the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs.

“What we had in 1997 was a case of fratricide taking place within the Army, with very senior active duty and Army Guard officers lobbing incendiary hyperbole rounds at one another,” said Cragin. “They were really at each other’s throats. Through a lot of hard work and professional leadership, however, we worked things out.”

In putting the controversy to rest, Cohen also sent out a key memorandum calling for all service secretaries, service chiefs, and global commanders in chief to tear down all remaining barriers-structural and cultural-to the seamless integration of the reserve forces into the Total Force. Forced by necessity to lean harder on Guard and Reserve forces in shouldering the burden of increased peacekeeping and peace enforcement missions, the Army chief quickly indicated he had gotten the message.

“Today, I declare that we are The Army-totally integrated with a unity of purpose-no longer the Total Army, no longer the One Army; we are The Army,” Gen. Eric K. Shinseki, Army Chief of Staff, declared upon taking office in June 1999, after personally leading an integrated active and reserve force in Bosnia. “And we will march into the 21st century as The Army.”

The experience of an airman in an ANG air refueling unit in Michigan helped convince reserve officials of the need to break down barriers blocking the access of reservists to military health care. After he was activated for a deployment to Kosovo, the airman’s pregnant wife was forced to switch for monetary reasons from his private health care to his military coverage, only to discover her doctor did not participate in the new plan. Two months after the airman separated from active duty, the woman once again transitioned to his civilian health care plan, only to find that her old doctor could not accept any new patients. By the time the airman’s baby was delivered, his wife had been through three doctors in a single pregnancy.

“That case helped persuade us to seek an option whereby the government will pay the premiums so that an activated reservist can stay with his private health coverage,” said Cragin. “We’re still working on that.”

A DoD policy required that a service member stay on active duty for two years before his family became eligible for full benefits such as dental care. That was a Catch-22 for a reservist who, by law, can only stay on active duty for nine months, yet who had no civilian employer to provide health care coverage. The Pentagon fixed that by making reservists called to active duty for more than 30 days automatically eligible for military health benefits.

Speed Bumps

Experts say there are many such hidden speed bumps buried in DoD regulations and, in some cases, inadequate legislation. Congress has recently expanded re-employment protection, for instance, to cover reservists who work outside the United States for US companies. Under two new statutes, reservists traveling to distant training grounds will now be granted the status and reduced airfares of “official government travelers,” and in those cases where no overland transportation is available they will be allowed to travel “space-required” on military aircraft.

Reserve officials also admit they are increasingly concerned that reservists may be approaching a saturation point in terms of their contribution to ongoing operations and the subsequent time away from family and civilian employers. The Office of Reserve Affairs has thus sent out questionnaires to more than 100,000 reservists and their spouses, its first effort in eight years to gauge the impact of increased deployments on families and finances.

“Under the old paradigm where reservists were expected to be called up only for the ‘big one,’ the Pentagon didn’t worry too much about families or employers because we just assumed their support in the event of a major war,” said Cragin. “Now those days are past, and we have to be very concerned about the unique challenges faced by the families and employers of reservists who are away more frequently and for longer periods of time.”

Because Guard and Reserve families are not clustered around military installations, as is often the case for the families of active duty service members, they cannot as easily gain access to military day care, commissaries, base exchanges, and the other family support services that would otherwise be available.

Reserve officials believe part of the solution is educating reservists and their families about the many benefits available to them. A booklet on reserve family benefits that is now available on the Web site of the Office of Reserve Affairs, for instance, has been downloaded a total of 170,000 times.

“Every week, when I visit reserve units, I always ask them how many of their spouses have military dependent ID cards, because that is the key to the military kingdom,” said Pentagon official Cragin. “You cannot access much support without it. Four years ago I would not see a lot of hands, which told me that the reservists had not engaged their spouses in conversation about becoming part of the military family. Today when I ask that same question, an awful lot more hands go up. That’s a [sign] that reserve families are becoming more involved.”

The Office of Reserve Affairs is also closely studying the aftermath of the Texas Guard’s 49th Armored Division historic rotation in command of active troops in Bosnia. Already a number of anecdotal news accounts have depicted broken marriages and lost jobs resulting from the deployment.

“As proud as Texas is and should be of its National Guard, this revolving door of Guard and Reserve forces being dispatched around the world is troubling,” declared an Austin American-Statesman editorial. “Guard members and Reservists have been deployed to the Persian Gulf, Bosnia, Kosovo, Somalia, Haiti, and Central and South America in recent years because there are too few active duty troops to carry the load. … Texans, and all Americans, can take pride in the strength of the Guard and Reserve. But the Pentagon has come to rely on them too heavily, and that’s not good for them or the country.”

Employer Concerns

To gauge the impact of those increased deployments on employers, the Office of Reserve Affairs also sent its first-ever survey to employers in late 1999. Reserve officials were surprised to find that roughly 10 percent of reservists work for the federal government. The results also revealed that most employers supported the reserve service of their employees, but many complained that reserve call-ups were too long and unpredictable.

Employers also complained about reservists who signed on to successive deployments voluntarily but whose jobs were nonetheless protected by federal law.

Cohen responded with an outreach program to Chambers of Commerce around the country. To date, more than 800 chambers representing 400,000 businesses have signed Statements of Support. The Army, meanwhile, has reduced the length of its reserve deployments to 179 days. In talking with the airlines, reserve officials discovered that deployments that lasted longer than 90 days required reserve pilots to get recertified on their civilian aircraft.

“What we learned is that, just because we can call up a reservist for 270 days, that doesn’t necessarily mean that’s the best way to manage that valuable resource,” said Cragin. “So we’re trying to work very closely with the airlines to devise ways to more effectively share the national treasure that our pilots represent.”

Air Force and reserve officials say building in added flexibility is the key to maximizing the contribution of Guard and Reserve forces. For instance, Air Guard and AFRC units have started sharing forward deployed aircraft–either reserve or active duty–to help enable the reservists to deploy for shorter intervals. Because many ANG and AFRC pilots have already been on earlier deployments, officials say, they do not need as much time for mission preparation.

“The key to using the Guard and Reserve on missions such as Northern and Southern Watch, and for peacekeeping in the Balkans, is to give them the flexibility to organize their resources as they see fit,” said Bernard D. Rostker, undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness. “Instead of assigning one person to a job, as you would do with an active duty service member, the reserves might find it better to have five bodies doing that job in rotation. The important thing is that the job gets done.”

Pentagon officials have also noticed a natural self-selection process as reservists volunteer for duty, and rotate in and out of units called up for active duty, based on their expectations of whether or not the unit will deploy.

Rostker said, “When we identified elements of the Texas 49th Armored Division for duty in Bosnia, for instance, one thing we saw happen was that people moved in and out of that division headquarters based on their understanding that it was going to deploy. And when the division came home, more than 100 of its Guardsmen decided they wanted to stay behind in Bosnia.”

Full-Speed Ahead

Indeed, while reserve officials are closely monitoring the pulse of Guard and Reserve forces for signs of unhealthy strain, they have not seen anything that overly worries them. Like the other service components, they have noted that retention actually increases in units that are deployed on real-world missions.

“In many cases,” said Cragin, “we’ve found a greater sense of professional satisfaction among reservists who have deployed on these missions and have had an opportunity to do something more than just their regular training cycle.”

Nor are Guard and Reserve officials shrinking from considering new missions for their forces. For instance, the Reserve Component Employment 2005 study, which was conducted under the auspices of the Office of the Secretary of Defense, the Joint Staff, and the Office of Reserve Affairs, suggested that reserve forces were a particularly good fit for the emerging mission of homeland defense. The Pentagon has already established 10 Rapid Assessment and Initial Detection teams-consisting of Army National Guard and ANG personnel-to assist civil authorities in responding to a terrorist attack involving weapons of mass destruction. The Fiscal 2000 defense bill authorized the creation of 17 more RAID teams.

The Reserve Component Employment 2005 study also recommended new ways for the reserves to provide additional low-density, high-demand capabilities and to assume a greater role in sustained peacekeeping operations in Bosnia and Kosovo. The study also suggested that DoD look at rotating reserve units to US peacekeeping operations in the Sinai.

“The question is often asked whether we are approaching or have already reached the limit of what the reserve forces can accomplish. My answer is that as long as we give them the flexibility to manage their people and the resources required to get the job done, we have not reached the limit,” said DoD’s Rostker. “You know, in the 1970s and 1980s, the biggest complaint you heard in the Guard and Reserves was that they were bored. You don’t hear that complaint much today.”

James Kitfield is the defense correspondent for National Journal in Washington, D.C. His most recent article for Air Force Magazine–“Will Europe Ruin NATO?”–appeared in October 2000.