The New Operational Force

The debate appears to be over—officially—as to whether the reserve components have morphed from a Cold War strategic force to a present-day operational force. The Pentagon late last month to little or no fanfare published two documents: one, a white paper titled “Managing the Reserve Components as an Operational Force,” and two, an accompanying DOD directive No. 1200.17. Both documents state: “The reserve components provide operational capabilities and strategic depth to meet the nation’s defense requirements across the full spectrum of conflict.” As the white paper notes, the debate started right after the 1991 Gulf War, which employed “large numbers of reserve forces” that were “deployed quickly, early in the conflict, alongside the active component forces.” But it really took hold after 9/11. Since that fateful day, National Guard and Reserve forces have been engaged in the war on terror “in different ways and at unprecedented levels,” states the white paper. Since Desert Storm, the Pentagon has made some changes in reserve force management, but the white paper indicates it took the war on terror to recognize that “incremental changes at the margin” are not sufficient and, more importantly, that the change to an operational force is “not temporary.” Issuance of the new directive, states the white paper, enables DOD “to codify” the new management approach beyond previously used policy memoranda. The new direction asserts that the reserve forces must have necessary staffing, training, and equipment but, since “resources are not unlimited,” the reserve forces “must be flexible and agile” to enable them to “transition between strategic and operational roles as needed.” The white paper cautions against overuse of the “part-time” reserve force, and it emphasizes the desirability of volunteer service vice mobilization. In fact, it states, “The expanded operational use of the Guard and Reserve is built on a construct of voluntary service” in its evolving “continuum of service structure.”