The Guard and Reserve Stand Fast

March 1, 2003

As the United States military prepared late last year for the confrontation with Iraq, thousands of members of the National Guard and Reserve began a holiday season routine that had grown familiar with repetition.

Activation orders rippled through the force of 1.3 million reservists in the largest call-up since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Around the nation, reservists rushed to get married, informed employers of long absences to come, struggled to shape up finances and paperwork, and bid tearful good-byes to worried family members and friends.

More than 10,000 Guardsmen and Reservists were activated during the call-up in December, joining another 53,000 already on active duty.

More activations took place in January and February, when the number activated hit more than 100,000. The number could top 200,000, depending on how the face-off with Iraq plays out. That would rival the Gulf War buildup of 263,000 reservists 12 years ago.

In spite of the obvious hardships, there were no protests from reservists whose lives were, again, disrupted. There was no outcry from employers left shorthanded again as employees put on the uniform and left for deployments. There were no commanders grumbling about being shackled with “weekend warriors.”

“The primary motivator [of the reservists] is to answer the call when the nation needs them,” said retired Maj. Gen. Richard C. Alexander, president of the National Guard Association of the United States. “It’s why they want to be in uniform in the first place, and their families support them because they feel the same way.”

It’s getting harder, though, continued Alexander.

“What’s changed,” he said, “is that the US military can no longer predict where it will be fighting next or what kind of host nation support it might receive. That has put increased pressure on the Guard and Reserve to step up and respond more rapidly to these unanticipated crises.”

The burden placed on the reserve components has grown dramatically in the past decade, and it spiked even higher after the 9/11 attacks. During the Cold War’s four decades, Presidents rarely needed to approve major activations of the Guard and Reserve. Within the past 12 years, the reserves have been activated for six major contingencies:

  • Desert Storm in Iraq and Kuwait, 1990–91.
  • Northern Watch over Iraq, 1991 to the present.
  • Southern Watch over Iraq, 1992 to the present.
  • Deliberate Force in Bosnia, 1995.
  • Allied Force over Serbia, 1999.
  • Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan, 2001 to the present.

It is not unusual to find reservists who have been called up four or even five times in the past decade.

The contribution of Guard and Reserve forces to ongoing contingency operations has grown from an average of roughly one million man-days of duty per year in the 1980s to 13 million man-days at present.

As a result, the Guard and Reserve have undergone a dramatic transformation from organizations designed for mass mobilization in the unlikely event of a major war to active members of a Total Force engaged in constant peacekeeping, peace enforcement, and combat operations around the world.

Handle With Care

Craig W. Duehring, principal deputy assistant secretary of defense for reserve affairs, said expanded reliance on the reserve components should be handled with utmost care.

“Everyone realizes we are no longer using the Guard and Reserves as we did during the Cold War,” said Duehring. “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.”

In recruiting and retention, officials had expected problems. However, the Guard and Reserve have met or exceeded their goals during the last hectic year of operations.

Nor have officials encountered the expected spike in complaints from hard-pressed employers upset at losing their most valued employees. “I’ve been holding my breath and watching closely for warning signs that we’ve reached some kind of saturation point in use of the Guard and Reserve,” said Duehring. “So far I haven’t seen any.”

Bob G. Hollingsworth is executive director of the Pentagon’s National Committee for Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve. He attributes the national outpouring of support to the shock and anger caused by the first direct attack on the United States since Pearl Harbor in 1941.

“I haven’t seen this galvanization of support from employers in my lifetime,” he said. “The great preponderance of calls I have received from employers after 9/11 have not concerned what they had to do by law but rather what employers could do extra for their employees who were reservists.”

Hollingsworth cites the example of a Virginia reservist who was mobilized for duty in Bosnia. He had a wife and two children and stood to lose about half of his annual $50,000 income, which he earned driving trucks for the Serta Mattress Co.

“The financial burden eventually became such a problem,” said Hollingsworth, “that he called us, and we made a visit to Serta to explain the situation. The company not only made up the salary differential while he was on active duty but also extended his health insurance.”

Hollingsworth added that there are “hundreds” of companies doing the same thing.

Sense of Honor

The same sense of patriotism is evident in the reservists who call the National Committee for Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve. Many from infrequently activated units inquired how to volunteer for active duty. Hollingsworth cites the case of Sgt. Layne Morris, a member of a Special Forces unit in the Army National Guard from Salt Lake City. Morris was wounded in a firefight in Afghanistan, losing an eye. Moreover, one of his friends was killed. Now, said Hollingsworth, Morris wants to go back to Afghanistan to complete “unfinished business” there.

Hollingsworth says he is “ecstatic” about the response of reservists and employers.

Today, the spotlight is on actual deployments, but the Pentagon has been studying ways to further transform the Guard and Reserve components to make them more relevant to an era of short-notice contingencies and new missions such as homeland defense and regular peacekeeping rotations.

As part of an ongoing Reserve Component Comprehensive Review, Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld asked the services and reserve components to consider changes in the entire active–reserve relationship. His goal: smoother cooperation in peacetime and times of crisis.

Along the way, Rumsfeld and his top aides have made some controversial proposals. One calls for giving back to the active force a number of missions now performed by reservists. Rumsfeld was annoyed when he learned that he couldn’t swiftly execute some missions because they required reserve activation.

However, any major change in that situation would strike at the heart of the Total Force concept. Any actual proposal to move missions from the Guard and Reserve on a wholesale basis is sure to cause consternation and anger in the reserve ranks.

“Certainly, Secretary Rumsfeld’s suggestion that it might make sense to move certain missions back to the active component got our attention,” said Army Maj. Gen. Raymond F. Rees, acting chief of the National Guard Bureau.

Rees went on to say, however, “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. 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.”

The Total Force was born in 1973 and was directly tied in principle to the all-volunteer force created the same year in the backwash of Vietnam. President Johnson had resisted a major reserve call-up throughout the Vietnam years so as not to disturb his Great Society legislative effort.

US military leaders have never forgotten that the Johnson Administration, for reasons of political expediency, refused to put the nation on a war footing, leaving the uniformed services to fight the Vietnam War on their own, with little up-front public support.

Done for a Reason

In the wake of Vietnam, postwar military leaders, led by Army Chief of Staff Gen. Creighton W. Abrams Jr., decided to make a wholesale transfer of combat support functions to the reserves. The result was a military force structure purposely configured to require a Presidential reserve call-up in the event of a major mobilization.

In the Air Force, reserve component 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. Seven of the Air Force’s 20 fighter wing equivalents (the term used to describe combat fighter aircraft force structure) are in the Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve Command. The AFRC forces also fly B-52 bombers.

In the Army, 70 percent of combat service support resides in the reserve component. The reserves are also home to 97 percent of the Army’s civil affairs forces, and 82 percent of its public affairs officers. Likewise, 81 percent of Army public affairs forces are in the reserves; 81 percent of psychological operations forces; 85 percent of medical brigades; and 66 percent of military police battalions.

The Department of Defense has discovered—or relearned—this pivotal fact: The President needs to call up the reserves even for such small-scale contingencies as Bosnia, Kosovo, and the Gulf no-fly zone operations.

Under the pressures of real-world operations during the past decade, the reserve components have learned a new flexibility.

A real-world example came late last year. The Air Force badly wanted to send home thousands of Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve Command troops. They had been on security duty at US and overseas bases for more than a year, and they legally could have been held on active duty for another 12 months.

However, the Air Force did not have sufficient personnel to replace them. In the end, the Army National Guard stepped in, activating and retraining 9,000 combat troops for security duty and offering them as replacements.

“I think the Army Guard’s willingness to mobilize 9,000 of their troops to fill that shortfall was a monumental event,” said Duehring. “It showed the willingness of the reserves after 9/11 to relax some of these entrenched philosophies and territorial jealousies.”

There is widespread wariness, however, that the reserve review could make it easier to deploy military forces without a call-up of reserves, and that would undermine a fundamental principle of the Total Force.

“I understand that the Secretary of Defense is trying to [move] 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 Alexander. “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. … I also believe the Guard and Reserve would become less relevant.”

The reserve components aren’t averse to change. In fact, officials say they are experimenting with new ways to make the reserves more flexible and responsive—and reserve duty less onerous once a unit or individual is activated.

For many Army officials, the best model is the Air National Guard. “I’ve said for years that the Air Guard model makes a lot of sense for the new operational environment we’re confronting,” said Rees of the National Guard Bureau.

Rees went on, “Just look at Air Guard units, attached to the 1st Air Force, that are ready to fly air defense missions over the United States with only minutes of warning. The Air Guard has proven for a long time that the Guard can support rapid-reaction missions. You just have to make the appropriate investment in resources and training.”

The Rainbow Effect

In a concept called “rainbowing,” Air Guard units meet the requirements of a three-month Northern Watch or Southern Watch deployment by bringing in fresh units every two weeks. The units fall in on forward deployed equipment. This avoids burdening a single unit with an entire 90-day deployment, as is customary for the active duty Air Force.

All of this is part and parcel of USAF’s 10 Air and Space Expeditionary Forces, or AEFs.

“The AEF construct is clear evidence that the Air Force and Air Guard have tried to come to grips with the expeditionary requirements and the types of deployment issues we’re increasingly confronting,” said Rees. “We’re not at that level of sophistication yet with the Army Guard.”

There are other lessons from the Air National Guard model, say officials. They note many Air Guardsmen are pilots or aircraft maintainers in civilian life, and, as a result, they can often transition to their military roles more quickly and with less training. The lesson is that all service reserve components should take care to match civilian careers with reserve force occupations.

The Air Guard also defies the old one-weekend-a-month, two-weeks-a-year scheme of reserve duty. Because some Air Guard units are known to have high deployment rates and operations tempo—the Air Guard’s Commando Solo 193rd Special Operations Wing in Pennsylvania is a noted example—they tend to attract reservists with flexible careers and a thirst for adventure.

“People realize when they join those units that they have a high rate of tasking, and if that doesn’t fit the realities of their civilian careers or family situations, they better look to join another unit,” said Duehring. “Frequently, Air Guard pilots are on reserve duty for much longer than the traditional two weeks each summer, but their jobs allow for that.”

In applying that concept across the board, the Office of Reserve Affairs is looking to adjust the old model. If an Army Guard armor unit takes a week to deploy its equipment to the field for training and a week to return it, for instance, it may need to train for a full three weeks while dropping the requirement to show up one weekend per month.

The point is that the threats to US security and national interests around the world are changing more rapidly than any time in memory, Guard and Reserve officials say, and their forces are ready to adapt to the new challenges.

As Duehring puts it, “The idea is to be flexible.”

James Kitfield is the defense correspondent for National Journal in Washington, D.C. His most recent article for Air Force Magazine, “The Highs and Lows of Northern Watch,” appeared in the August 2002 issue.