If there is one clear lesson from the past two decades, it's that when the Army needs members of the Army Reserve, it needs a lot of them. In the first Gulf War, more than 84,000 Reserve soldiers were called up; more recently, in Iraq and Afghanistan, most were deployed one or more times.
Now, with operations winding down and budget cuts looming, we need to think about how best to maintain the strength of this important part of our defenses. Those efforts will rely on robust recruiting, retention and training programs throughout the country. How can we best do this?
There's a lot at stake. The current reserve components are the only strategic reserve we have. The end strength of the active component is being reduced, and we are likely to rely on the Army Reserve (and to a certain extent the Army National Guard) even more than ever. Since the 1970s, we have been an all-volunteer Army. There is no draft and, even if the political will could be found to reinstitute one, there is no training base to rapidly train a large number of new soldiers. Maintaining the Army Reserve we have is more important than ever.
Unfortunately, several factors give cause for concern about whether we can do that.
First, the pool of eligible potential recruits is shrinking. In 2009, a group of retired military personnel and civilian military leaders issued a report called "Ready, Willing, and Unable to Serve." The report said, "Startling statistics released by the Pentagon show that 75 percent of young people ages 17 to 24 are currently unable to enlist in the United States military. Three of the most common barriers for potential recruits are failure to graduate [from] high school, a criminal record, and physical fitness issues, including obesity."
Second, we are also beset by what has been called the "narrow sliver" problem. Our military is becoming more and more separated from the rest of American society. Then-Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates noted this problem in a speech in 2010. "We should not ignore the broader, longterm consequences of waging these protracted military campaigns employing - and re-employing - such a small portion of our society in the effort. ... [F]or a growing number of Americans, service in the military, no matter how laudable, has become something for other people to do. In fact, with each passing decade fewer and fewer Americans know someone with military experience in their family or social circle."
Third, over those same last two decades, the Army and the Army Reserve have been relocating to the Southeast. Actions by the Defense Base Closure and Realignment Commission have reduced the number of active posts and moved many units and activities. Even a brief glance at the distribution of senior Army Reserve headquarters reveals the situation. By simple numbers, only six of the 29 senior commands are west of the Mississippi River. Eighteen are from the South or the border states in the Civil War. More critically, only three of the 15 functional and operational commands are west of the Mississippi River.
My experiences were probably similar to those of many commanders outside of the Southeast. As a transportation battalion commander in California several years ago, I was far from any doctrinally correct higher headquarters. The one active and four Reserve transportation groups were east of the Mississippi River. The 143rd Transportation Command was in Florida, and the U.S. Army Transportation Center and School was at then-named Fort Eustis, Va. The functional higher headquarters for my port construction engineering company was in Mississippi. Surface Deployment and Distribution Command (then Military Traffic Management Command) was in Virginia. Furthermore, the Office of the Chief of Army Reserve and the U.S. Army Reserve Command were in Virginia and Georgia, respectively.
Since those days, the situation has become even more lopsided. The distance between Reserve units and their doctrinally aligned higher headquarters - a long-standing challenge in the Army Reserve - has been exacerbated.
The Flip Side of the Abrams Doctrine
After the Vietnam War, the so-called Abrams Doctrine stated that we should never again go to war without the support of the entire nation, and one way to ensure that was to involve the Army Reserve and National Guard. Today, the reserve components provide a direct connection to the military for communities across America.
Importantly, the Abrams Doctrine has a flip side. For recruiting and retention, the Army Reserve is not like the active component. The active Army simply recruits from anywhere and moves soldiers to where they are needed. The Army Reserve must recruit soldiers from a relatively local area to fill vacant positions. To effectively recruit and retain members of the Reserve in all regions, the Army Reserve must have a substantial presence in all regions. A broad distribution of units and particularly higher headquarters is needed to support high-quality training, provide reasonable career progression and ensure visibility of the program.
Why Go West?
While the South has been fertile ground for Army Reserve recruiting, we need to recruit for the Army Reserve in all regions. Of the top eight most populous states, six are not in the South (California, New York, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Michigan). Can the U.S. Army Reserve survive demographically without these heavily populated states? Maybe, but we are not likely to be as strong as we would be with a high-profile presence in those states. Furthermore, 12 percent of all Americans live in California alone. That means one of every eight Americans is from California.
These numbers are not likely to change soon. The West is the fastest growing region of the United States and also the youngest. The Western region also has some of the highest child dependency ratios and some of the lowest elder dependency ratios.
In addition, much of the growth in California and other Western states has occurred, and will occur, among Hispanics. They have traditionally been well represented in the Army and Army Reserve. For example, the U.S. Army G-l in 2010 noted that 12 percent of the Army Reserve is Hispanic, a number that is very likely to grow.
Geography and training are also important. President Obama noted that, in the 21st century, we will increasingly focus on the Pacific region. Last January, Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta echoed this shift in emphasis: "As we move towards this new joint force, we are rebalancing our global posture and presence, emphasizing the Pacific and Middle East. These are the areas where we see the greatest challenges for the future." More broadly based stationing supports deployments, especially on the West Coast. Regarding Asia and the Pacific, California is forward positioned by 3,000 miles. In addition, the West has excellent training areas at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash.; Fort Irwin, Fort Hunter-Liggett, and Camp Pendleton, Calif.
In Support of a National Defense
In the midst of the Revolutionary War, John Adams recognized that the Continental Army had to represent the whole country, and he encouraged the appointment of the Southerner George Washington as commander of what was, at the time, essentially an army of New Englanders.
For a number of years, the Army Reserve has been retreating into a modern-day Pusan perimeter in the Southeast United States. The demographic Inchon is California. The long-term success of the Army Reserve, however, will require us to break out of that mind-set.
A good beginning is to set a policy goal that the Army Reserve, particularly higher operational headquarters, should be appropriately dispersed throughout the country.
There are solid idealistic and practical reasons for a broad base for the Army Reserve. The idea behind the Abrams Doctrine was sound: to involve all Americans in the nation's defense. In recent years, the military has tended to become more separated from the rest of American society. The "1 percent" in this case is the very small percentage of Americans who have a connection to the military. The increasing concentration of the Army Reserve (and the Army) in one quadrant of the country will not eliminate the idea of "us and them" - the few in the military and the rest who barely know that we have a military. In addition, we need to recruit from all parts of the nation - especially from areas of high population growth - and a younger average age to support longterm growth of the Army Reserve.
The stationing of Army Reserve units is fraught with politics and tradition. Nevertheless, a discussion of it is long overdue. It won't happen overnight, but we need to start somewhere. .
By COL Gary C. Howard
U.S. Army Reserve retired
COL Gary C. Howard, USAR Ret., was commander of the 1397th Transportation Terminal Brigade at Mare Island, Calif. During his Army Reserve career he served in battalion and company command and staff assignments in 10 units in four states. In his civilian career, COL Howard is the principal scientific editor for an independent biomedical research institute affiliated with the University of California, San Francisco. He has a Ph.D. in biological sciences from Carnegie Mellon University and has published numerous articles in scientific and military publications.…