Too Quiet on the Western Front

By Howard, Gary C. | Army, December 2012 | Go to article overview

Too Quiet on the Western Front


Howard, Gary C., Army


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?

Recruiting Challenges

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. …

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