As the end of the draft in 1972 ushered in the era of the professional force we know today, the military instituted another key reform that transformed America's ability to wage war, at least on a large scale. Still smarting from the failure of the nation's body politic to do what had been done in every major war prior to Vietnam -- namely, to call up the militia -- a group of Army generals, among them Creighton Abrams, John Vessey, and Edward C. Meyer, introduced the Total Force Policy.
More than just a way to manage another postwar demobilization, the Abrams Doctrine, as it was also known, transformed the Reserve and National Guard from being shelters to avoid service into integral parts of the nation's war machine. The policy made it strategically and operationally impracticable to engage in serious conflict without calling up America's part-time troops.
By placing the majority of the Army's combat support capabilities in the Reserve component, where they largely remain today, the policy ensured that Congress, as well as the president, would be involved in deciding matters of war and peace. This made it harder to engage in a major war without the support of the American people. And by weaving citizen-soldiers back into the fabric of the military, the military would be woven back into the fabric of the country, thus maintaining a healthy, democratic civil-military relationship.
It appears we have reached a similarly pivotal decision point in our civil-military history.
The winding down of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is forcing the United States to realign and rebalance foreign policy and national security commitments in ways that are more cost-effective. Overwhelming fiscal pressures are mounting to the point where even defense spending is no longer sacrosanct. Politicians are realizing, as Foreign Policy's Gordon Adams has put it, that "it is high time to start thinking about how to manage a serious drawdown instead of pretending it will not happen." Columnist David Brooks noted that the President Obama may have appointed Chuck Hagel as secretary of defense chiefly to "supervise the beginning of this generation-long process of defense cutbacks."
Yet these constraints present strategic opportunities more than national dilemmas. Among them is the opportunity to exploit improvements in the Reserves over the past dozen or so years to provide a relatively ready force that can be drawn upon for missions across the "full spectrum" of peace and conflict -- small- as well as large-scale -- at about one-third the price.
The most recent report of the Reserve Forces Policy Board (RFPB) concluded that while Reserve component forces comprise 39 percent of the total force, they account for 16 percent of the costs. It calculated that an Active component service member costs taxpayers $384,000 compared to $123,000 for his counterpart in the Reserves, which would translate into about $2.6 billion in savings for every 10,000 positions shifted from full-time to part-time.
According to Chief of the Army Reserve Lt. Gen. Jeffrey Talley, the Army Reserve "comprises almost 20 percent of the Total Army and for just 6 percent of the Army budget...with the lowest ratio of full-time support to headquarters per capita (less than one percent), and the lowest ratio of full-time support to end-strength (13.1 percent) in the Department of Defense."
"The RFPB did not suggest changes to the Active Component or Reserve Component end strength, nor did it comment on balance and mix," noted Robert Feidler of the Reserve Officer Association. "But the implications of its report are obvious. If the Active Component does suffer substantial personnel cuts, the logical place to locate the resources -- which may be critical but are used only sporadically -- is the Reserve Component."
From Back-Ups to Bench Players
While reservists may cost one-third the money, they are hardly one-third the soldiers. Today's Reserve component force of over one million troops is not your daddy's Cadillac, taken out and driven only on weekends. Despite chronic underinvestment in some areas, the gaps in professionalism and performance have narrowed to the point where reservists in the field are hardly distinguishable from their active-duty counterparts. This owes mainly to a decade of intense operations in combat zones. At various times, 30-40 percent of deployed forces in Iraq and Afghanistan have been mobilized citizen-soldiers. Since 9/11, more than 860,000 Reserve personnel have served active tours of duty.
Now, more than simply providing strategic depth during big wars, the Reserves have grown to fill a variety of roles. The Pentagon's 2008 Integrated Security Posture Statement concluded that the Reserve component is best suited for steady state engagement, stability operations, homeland defense, and humanitarian assistance missions -- as well as major combat operations. Rather than just back-ups, they have become bench players who can do things others can't.
The Reserves are ideal for the security cooperation missions that will increasingly be part of America's efforts to maintain global leadership and influence. In places like Africa, where the United States is venturing further, security has long been community-based -- more a function of socioeconomic development. The latest National Security Strategy looks to "tap the ingenuity outside government through strategic partnerships with the private sector, nongovernmental organizations, foundations, and community-based civil society organizations." And there is no national entity that better utilizes non-government resources than the Reserves.