Truman National Security Project

The Military Should Rely More on Reserve Forces


This week, The Army Times reported on a controversial draft report from the Department of Defense to Congress on why reserve and guard forces are less expensive than the regular military. The report aims to solidify a foundation for discussion on the right balance between reserve, guard and regular units to meet national security needs while suggesting efficiencies in the force structure given today’s austere budget. However, the concept of transferring resources and reliance to the reserve has long been met with tough criticism and skepticism.

Those who oppose increasing our reliance on the nation’s military reserve claim such units are not as responsive as active-duty units- primarily because of the ramp up time required to mobilize and train reservists. In general, this is a true, but it does not have to be for the future.

The DoD study makes no attempt to opine a comparison between the relative effectiveness or proficiency of similar capabilities between components, which is where the report will ultimately fall short in moving the discussion forward. Rather, it only focuses on providing a scientific estimate of the holistic cost to employ active and reserve units beyond the scope of mere pay and compensation, including such things as family housing and support programs, retirement medical costs, and other factors.

Most take it as fait accompli that while not mobilized, reservists are less costly than the regular force; and, while mobilized, reservists cost roughly the same. This report attempts to harden that claim with figures as well as provide costs comparisons for unit operations. While cost is not, and should not, be the only factor in deciding a strategic mix for tomorrow’s force structure, in today’s sparse fiscal environment, it cannot be ignored.

In peacetime, active units are funded to maintain a higher level of readiness relative to the reserve for quicker reaction time and more flexibility. In general, reserve units require more time and resources to be ready for deployment. But does this always have to be the case?

The primary reason for this difference in readiness levels is how the Army prepares its soldiers for deployment. While active units are constantly training and can quickly mobilize for deploymen, the Army reserve and guard first mobilize, then train and deploy. Other services have different models and none are cookie cutter for all missions. Alteratively,  the Army could conceive of a quick reaction force maintained at higher readiness levels; residing in the reserve component.

According to experts at the Reserve Officers Association of the United States, the defense department has been pushing to keep reserve forces trained so when the mobilization order comes down, they are ready. This is how the Air Force reserve does it. It is also why they can respond within 72 hours to any national emergency. But it is clear from an insider’s perspective that the active Army is holding out and looking to the past rather than the future.

The Military leadership and Congress should question whether there is a way to maintain a higher level of readiness in the reserve that would achieve desired response times while taking advantage of the cost savings the reserve provides. There is a solution, but it will require a huge paradigm shift in the Pentagon’s traditional approach.

After a decade of war, our reserve forces today are battle tested and ready. They are not the same force holding in strategic limbo for the Soviets to plunge through the Fulda Gap. Leaders must take advantage of this momentum now, otherwise the reserve could revert to its former position on the sidelines, and the military will continue to waste precious resources maintaining an unnecessarily sized active force.

This report shows that slicing the pie in a prudent and deliberate manner, placing more of the mission into the reserve components, can achieve a significant cost savings. With such potential, it is time for the regular component to break its preconceived notions and negative stigma associated with a greater reliance on the reserve and guard. With the Pentagon’s budget on the chopping block, its leaders should use this study and propose a radically different balance in force structure for the future and take advantage of the significant savings while not impacting our national security.

David Small is a Truman National Security Project Defense Council Member.