Opinion: Columnists

Active and reserve forces are all on the same Army team

By |
Opinion,James Jay Carafano,Columnists,Army,Defense Spending

Running for president in 1968, Richard Nixon made a bold promise: He would end the draft.

And he did. The Pentagon switched to an "all-volunteer force."

But recruiting and retaining volunteers costs more. That, paired with pressure to reduce defense spending, made reliance on the Army Reserve and National Guard essential.

Unless mobilized, reserves can be maintained far more cheaply than active forces. President Nixon's Army chief of staff, Gen. Creighton Abrams, made partnership with the National Guard the centerpiece of plans for the post-Vietnam Army.

The “Abrams Doctrine”--recognizing the Guard as a vital partner for the active Army--was put in place in the 1970s; the principle hasn't always held. In the 1990s, when President Clinton cashed in the post-Cold War “peace dividend,” the Pentagon and National Guard squabbled over force cuts. Ultimately, Clinton's Army chief of staff, Gen. Dennis Reimer, managed to rebuild trust with the National Guard Bureau and the state adjutants general.

Good that they did. An active-reserve forces partnership was essential to U.S. military success over the last decade.

The military simply could not have met all its post-9/11 responsibilities without the Guard. National Guard soldiers have served on every front, from our own borders to those of Afghanistan.

The frequent overseas deployments are slated to end, but things are heating up at home as the active and reserve brass brace for another round "post-conflict" cuts in defense.

Some National Guard backers call for gutting the active force to save the military structure in the states. Meanwhile, some senior Army leaders have suggested that the value of Guard forces is overrated.

It’s a shame that irresponsible budgeting has put the armed services in an untenable position. Yet back-room bickering won't make tough decisions any smarter or easier. Worse, it can undermine this powerful partnership that will continue to be essential to the common.

Army leadership needs to give the Guard the respect it deserves. Today’s Guard is the most professional, combat-experienced group of citizen-soldiers in the nation's history. And if the U.S. military becomes involved in any protracted operation in the future, it won't be protracted very long without a robust National Guard to back up the active forces.

And both sides need to stop treating the future of the force as a zero-sum game between the active and reserve components. The future must be planned from a "total" force perspective.

Both active and Guard leaders need fresh thinking that moves beyond the 40-year-old Abrams Doctrine. For instance, one long-cherished part of that doctrine was called "mirror imaging”—a policy that keeps the same kinds of combat units (i.e., armored brigades and divisions) in both the active force and the National Guard. The idea was that the Guard would be a more equal and relevant partner if had a similar force structure. But that notion doesn’t really make sense in a post-Cold War world.

The Army's aviation restructuring plan is a good example of a fresh approach to force structure that makes sense. Moving all the Apache attack helicopters to the active force will let us get the most out of what's left after the drawdown. On the other hand, the Pentagon and National Guard ought to work together to reverse the appalling reductions in Guard forces that have been specially organized and equipped for homeland defense.

National security demands teamwork, not infighting. Defense leaders--civilian, active and reserve--must abandon a blind commitment to traditional policies and force structures. Ruinous budgetary decisions have made preserving the status quo impossible. New thinking from a total force perspective is required to assure the reserve forces can continue to make their invaluable contributions in the future.

JAMES JAY CARAFANO, a Washington Examiner columnist, is vice president for defense and foreign policy studies at the Heritage Foundation.
View article comments Leave a comment