The military’s reserve components are facing an uphill battle to preserve people, missions and money at a time of shrinking budgets across the force.
A reserve advisory board is formally urging the Defense Department to continue the operational use of Guard and reserve units despite the end of the Iraq war and the drawdown in Afghanistan. Reserve advocates say part-time troops offer an affordable way to preserve military readiness.
But that’s meeting stiff opposition from the Pentagon active-duty leadership, especially on the issue of the force mix between active and reserve forces. Many active-duty leaders want the reserves to bear a significant portion of the personnel cuts that may be on the horizon.
Richard Wightman Jr., assistant secretary of defense for reserve affairs, said the Pentagon’s recent budget and strategy review included little discussion of force mix.
“We feel like we kind of failed in that regard,” Wightman said at the Sept. 5 meeting of the Reserve Forces Policy Board.
The board adopted a list of formal recommendations at the meeting, calling on Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel to limit reductions in reserve personnel and include the reserve components in the strategy and budget planning process.
Inside the Pentagon, tension persists between the reserve component and the active-duty leaders, fueled in part by recent battles in the Army and the Air Force in which reserve leaders turned to Congress to block plans for scaling back their size or missions.
“Some aspects of the way that the Guard system operates are perceived within the department as contributing to a tense political time,” said Christine Fox, former director of Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation at DoD.
Congress usually is a staunch defender of the Guard and reserve, which hold a prominent place in communities across the nation. Politically, the reserve components are a presence in every state and many congressional districts; operationally, the Guard is often mobilized to help with domestic crises such as floods or hurricanes.
The Pentagon’s top financial officer said the budget cuts known as sequestration will force the reserves to take a new round of reductions, despite their political support.
“If you face $50 billion in cuts, there is just almost no doubt that the reserves are going to have to get smaller,” Defense Department Comptroller Robert Hale told the Reserve Forces Policy Board. “I fully understand that the Congress is highly protective of the reserves, especially the Guard. But if there has got to be some cuts, we’d want to have a reasonably balanced drawdown.”
Several studies have shown that reserve troops are cheaper to maintain not only when they are in drilling status but also when they are fully mobilized, in part because reservists accrue a far less generous pension and do not make permanent change-of-station moves every few years.
Nevertheless, costs are not the only consideration, Hale said. “Issues other than cost will come into play. Our operational plans require some rapid deployment of military units and that requires a substantial portion of the force has to be on active duty.”