On Guard, In Reserve

Sept. 1, 1987

It has been quite a while since anyone looked down their noses at the Air National Guard or the Air Force Reserve. These forces, superbly trained and far better equipped than they once were, now get plenty of re­spect. In fact, Guard and Reserve teams are usually favored to beat out active-duty and international entries in competitive events from Gunsmoke to Airlift Rodeo.

Recent conversions have put more of the Guard and Reserve in first-line combat aircraft, and they carry a big share of the Air Force mission (see box). The crews operate with an impressive smoothness that comes from years of working together, and experience levels are high in both flying and ground support units.

“Gone are the days of training only one weekend a month and two weeks in the summer,” says Maj. Gen. John B. Conaway, Director of the Air National Guard since 1981. “We are now involved daily throughout the world in performing real missions, such as aerial refuel­ing, air defense, tactical airlift, and support of drug-interdiction efforts.”

General Conaway ‘s Air Guard—whose strength was 112,500 and climbing at the end of FY ’86—is the larger of the two Air Reserve Forces (ARF) components. In fact, the Air National Guard is the fifth largest air force in the world.

The fastest-growing component, however, is the Air Force Reserve. Its current strength is 78,519, but be­tween 1973 and 1990, the size of the Air Force Reserve will have nearly doubled (from 43,700 to 86,000). To­gether, the Air Guard and Reserve account for almost a quarter of USAF’s total military manpower.

Both ARF components have improved in quality as they grew in size. Maj. Gen. Roger B. Scheer, new Chief of the Air Force Reserve, takes pride in the announced intention of the West Germans to build their air reserve units in the AFRES model, having found it to be the most advanced and combat-effective in the world.

Shifting the Mission

The “weekend warrior” image began fading in 1970, when the Defense Department published its Total Force policy, directing the services to build up their Guard and Reserve components, give them more of the mission, and integrate their operation with that of the active-duty components. The distribution of military manpower is still shifting. In the past five years alone, the Selected Reserve strength of the four services has increased by thirty percent.

“Under the Total Force policy, we have increasingly staked our national security on the ability to mobilize, deploy, and employ combat-ready reserve component units and members anywhere in the world rapidly,” Dennis R. Shaw, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Reserve Affairs, told Congress earlier this year. “Today, many military contingency plans can­not be effectively executed without committing some or many National Guard and Reserve forces in the same time frame as active forces. For example, the reserve components were available and used in Lebanon, Gre­nada, and most recently in the retaliatory operation against Libya.”

Air Reserve components, now flying C-5s, C- 14 is, and KC-10s, have taken on more of the global airlift mission. Some Guard and Reserve units are being equipped with state-of-the-art F-16 and F-15 fighters, and others are upgrading to newer models of the F-4 fighter and the C-130 tactical airlifter. This program of conversion and modernization still has a ways to go, but it has already transformed the look and capabilities of the reserve components. Both the Air Guard and AFRES are programmed to grow still more in the years ahead with the transfer of additional mission work load from the active-duty force.

Shifting missions to the Guard and Reserve has great appeal for the budget-minded Congress, because re­serve force units cost about a third less to operate. A number of factors, however, go into deciding the best mix of active duty, Air Guard, and Air Force Reserve in the overall force structure.

The missions most suitable for transfer are those that entail wartime surge requirements but relatively low peacetime activity and training levels. (The economy of reserve force units is mainly a function of lower levels of activity. When operating continuously at full tilt, these units cost as much as active-duty forces.) Also, missions where rapid response is critical must usually stay with the active force, since Guard and Reserve units need additional time to deploy after notification.

Objections From the States

The closest thing to a cloud on the horizon results from the unique dual role of the Guard, which functions as a state militia as well as a federal military force. In nonmobilized status, Guard units are commanded by their state governors. (Personnel of the Air National Guard, for example, were called up sixty-three times last year to support civil authorities with search and rescue, disaster relief, and other services.)

In recent years, some state authorities have begun to interject themselves into the federal taskings of Guard units from their states. They have sought in particular to block deployments to Central and South America on missions to which they and other state officials took exception. In a case currently pending in the federal courts, seven states—Arkansas, Colorado, Hawaii, Iowa, Maine, Massachusetts, and Vermont—are chal­lenging the law that forbids governors to withhold, on essentially political grounds, participation by their Guard units in training outside the United States.

Otherwise, the division of duties is working out well, and the active-duty, Guard, and Reserve elements oper­ate effectively together. Training and inspections are the same for all. The reserve components participate in Red Flag and other exercises, conduct overseas deploy­ments, and take their share of the difficult jobs.

Seventeen years after its promulgation, the Total Force concept is no longer an experiment. It’s a success story.

Participating Partners

Percentage of USAF capabilities provided by the Guard and the Reserve.

Air defense 74%
Tactical airlift 59%
Strategic airlift aircrews 53%
Tactical fighter capability 33%
Air refueling 21%
Tactical reconnaissance 50%
Aerial port 67%
Tactical control 55%
Combat communications 65%
Aeromedical evacuation crews 93%