Congress tasked the commission, led by retired Gen. Carter Ham, to examine the structure of the Army and recommend ways to make the best use out of limited resources and a shrinking end-strength.

It will also specifically examine the impact of the controversial transfer of the AH-64 Apache attack helicopters from the Army National Guard to active duty.

The commission's recommendations are due to Congress no later than Feb. 1, 2016.

After a public meeting Thursday, Ham said it's a "high priority" to improve the shift of soldiers between active duty, the Reserve and the National Guard.

"We have heard over and over again from soldiers from all three components a desire to move more seamlessly between components," Ham told the Army Times, after the meeting in Arlington, Virginia. "Current policies and procedures make that fairly difficult."

An easier transition could make reserve components more appealing to soldiers as the Army draws down to 450,000 soldiers by the end of 2018. That would mean retention of key skills and experience that the military could summon if needed, and at a fraction of the price of growing new recruits.

"If we can come up with some recommendations that might make those kind of transitions easier, that would be a benefit to the Army and to the nation," Ham said.

The personnel aspect jives with Defense Secretary Ash Carter's broader aims to make the Army more nimble in its ability to attract and more quickly utilize and reward talent. Among other reforms, Carter has said he wants to fundamentally change the promotion system to skew more to merit and skill and create new midcareer entry points for needed skills.

Acting Undersecretary of Defense for Personnel Brad Carson echoed that sentiment when he referred in a memo to the "calcified personnel system largely unchanged since 1947" and warned "we will increasingly bleed key talent to the private sector."

Tough words for congressmen

Retired Marine Corps Maj. Gen. Arnold Punaro, invited to speak before the commission, added some flare to the meeting. Among other quips, Punaro called sequestration the biggest threat to National Security in his lifetime and said "anytime you bump into a congressman on the hill that's voted to keep the sequester, choke him to within an inch of his life," drawing laughs.

Punaro, the chair of the Reserve Forces Policy Board, stressed that the reserve component is a cost-efficient way to have a strong military. He also cited the Abram's Doctrine — if the military goes to war, Guard and reserves should go with it — in arguing that the reserve component should be a ready and able part of the nation's fighting force. And while criticizing Congress, he also said the Pentagon needed to change as well.

"We've got to break out of these old ways of doing business at the Pentagon. Congress has got to give the Pentagon more flexibility in the way they manage their money. So I think that's another area where the commission can strike a blow for freedom," Punaro said.

Among specific recommendations in his testimony to the commission:

  • Learn from Air Force and Navy integration of reserve force components as blended units through shared active and reserve platforms. For example, co-locate the Apaches the Guard and active Army are fighting over, for training and mobilization.
  • Utilize reserve component expertise where traditionally the Army would look active first.
  • Increase active-duty soldiers serving in reserve units, but do better to recognize and reward their work. (They generally have lower promotion rates, Punaro said).
  • Streamline the number of duty statuses in the reserve component.
  • Rely heavier on reserve components, which cost between 22-32 percent as much as active duty
  • Reform the pay system, which Punaro said pays 90 percent more than civilians of similar education and experience, while noting $1 trillion in unfunded liabilities for retirees. He also recommended not adding benefits, especially deferred ones, for reserve components.

Ham agreed that the reserves would likely continue to play an increased role in the Army after heavy use in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"There is great interest in increasing the number of multi-component units across the Army," Ham said. He noted there would be some variation depending on the type of unit and job, "but in general, we're sensing a tilt toward multi-component organizations," he concluded.