Reservists in lieu of a standing, trained army? Really?


Back during the Iraq War, PBS showed a documentary about reservists from a Southern state who had been called up for active duty.  (For the life of me, I can’t remember the name.)  The documentary was very sympathetic.  It showed these reservists as pathetic, out-of-shape bubbas — family men, of course — who were being forced out of their peaceful, domestic routines and sent to be lambs in George Bush’s evil, military-industrial-complex, oil- and Halliburton-driven slaughter.  They were victims as surely as the innocent Iraqi children they were being sent off to kill.

The hyper-serious, oozingly-sympathetic documentary was another reminder, as if I needed one that, in the world of the liberal media, there is no correct way to have a military:  trained, standing troops are sex-hungry rapists and, of course, baby killers.  Reservists are bumbling, out-of-shape fools.

That documentary, which I haven’t thought about in years, popped unbidden into my mind when I read that the Pentagon is proposing to trim America’s standing military and to rely more heavily on reservists as a cost-saving measure:

The Defense Department is preparing to send a controversial report to Congress that explains in detail how Reserve-component troops are substantially cheaper than active-duty members — an official analysis that is likely to fuel a growing debate about the future shape of the all-volunteer force.

Based on a two-year study conducted within the Office of the Secretary of Defense, the report marks the military’s first attempt to provide an itemized cost for the active and Reserve components in an effort to help determine what mix of forces can provide the most efficient use of taxpayer dollars.

According to a draft copy of the report obtained by Military Times, the Pentagon analysis concludes that Guard and Reserve troops not only are cheaper when in drilling status but also when fully mobilized, in part because their overall compensation is lower when taking into account noncash benefits such as retirement accrual and health care.

As a friend of mine dryly remarked, a Yugo is also cheaper than a Mercedes.

I have great respect for reservists — certainly more than the PBS documentary did, which subtly managed to paint the ones it filmed as mentally defective.  These men and women reserve a corner of their lives for America’s defense, which is a lot more than can be said for the rest of us.  But they are not a standing army.  They are weekend warriors — something I say, not in a pejorative way, but as a factual statement.  They no longer engage in the constant training that hones strength and reflexes, and that too often is the difference between life and death.

You guys know that I periodically link to a mil blog called Castra Praetoria.  I like Mike’s sense of humor and I like the insights he offers into military life.  The very first time I read his blog, I read a post called “Dr. Tabata.  We hate you!”  The post resonated with me because I’ve done some Tabata training and, even though I’m fit, it was the most exhausting thing I’ve ever done.  For the Marines, though, this is part of the training necessary to keep our front line fighters able to accomplish their jobs:

Simply thrashing a group of Marines into the ground is pretty easy and not a method of instruction I prefer. If they are simply getting their doors blown off without learning anything then I figure I’ve passed up a great training opportunity.

I like to ask Marines why we PT at all. Their answers are inevitably: “To be in shape.” “Be fit.” My personal favorite is: “To look good naked 1stSgt!” I appreciate the honesty.

The bottom line is we conduct PT in order to make our bodies harder to kill. Never mind the idea of being fitter and stronger than your enemy. Fit, healthy bodies tend to survive being shot, blown up, infected, and other rough treatment. It’s only natural the Corps would develop a culture of physical fitness within its ranks.

Being fit enough to survive is a full time job (and it helps if you’re young, too).  Making our military rely most heavily on those who are neither fit nor drilled is cruel:  it’s cruel to the reservists, who are pushed into responsibilities inconsistent with their entirely appropriate day-to-day lifestyles, and it’s cruel to Americans, who will be forced to lose their first and best line of defense in a world too heavily populated with people inculcated in a culture of death — people, moreover, who have America in their cross hairs.

photo by: expertinfantry
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  • Danny Lemieux

    I’m not sure that I agree with this premise. Yes, we need fully active conventional troops ready to go into action. However, a reservist system enables many more soldiers to go active in a very short period of time. My son is a reservist who keeps his skills up to more-than par. Ditto for the National Guard system. The Swiss military is based on virtually 100% reservists and the Israeli military also depends heavily upon a reservist system. Both militaries are awesome. 
    Our military would probably benefit greatly by expansing our reservist capabilities as it sets the stage for rapid mobilization when it is needed. Presumably, the lower cost of a reservist system would also allow the military to cost-effectively expand training capabilities and reservist numbers.

  • Bookworm

    The only reason I don’t defer to you on this one, Danny, is that I sincerely doubt that America will be able to have a reservist force similar to the Israeli or Swiss ones.  In Switzerland, it’s culture; in Israel, survival; in America, I fear that it’s a way to destroy the standing military.  That this proposal comes during an administration headed by a man who clearly hates and fears the military, worries me no end.

  • 11B40

    Personally, I trace the hollowing out process our military has been put through back to the suspension of the military draft. As a beneficiary of its opportunities to do stupid and/or dangerous things in some of the world’s more interesting locales, i think that this article highlights, or should that be lowlights, how our military thinking has been limited by our ruling elite.
    Back in my involuntary servitude daze, one’s military obligation was for six years.  In most cases, that broke out into two years of active duty, two years of active reserve duty, and two years of inactive reserve. (I’m not sure how exactly it broke out for those who went the 3-year enlistment route.) So, there was a pretty large short-term pool of recently-trained youthful reservists available. Militarily, this was not a bad thing by any means.
    During my all-expense-paid tour of sunny Southeast Asia, my infantry company had a mortar platoon that included several members of the Kansas National Guard who had planned to avoid the Orient by that means. Now mortarmen, as opposed to riflemen, are not the happiest of folks even under the best of circumstances, but these guys introduced a whole new level of reasons to avoid those of their ilk. I think there is a lesson to be thought about in regard to their experience, and I certainly recognize that there is a bit of difference between the Guard and the Reserves but, philosophically, not all that much.
    Now, I’ll admit that my fondness, if that’s the word, for the military draft is of a philosophical bent. I believe to my core that the suspension of the military draft has sent a message, both implicit and explicit, to the young men of this country that they do not have an individual responsibility to protect it. They are, in essence, “entitled” to let someone else carry their water, even if that’s 5′ 2″, 90-pound Jessica Lynch of early Iraq War fame or Bradley Manning of Wickipedia infamy. In a kind of subtle way, even the killing of Bin Ladin emphasized my point as young men poured into the streets to celebrate the work of others and then carefully avoided the recruiting stations on their way home.
    Back when the good Sisters of Mercy were making their many contributions to the shaping of my intellect and character, one of the points they made repeatedly was that when it comes to the temptation to sin, the Devil pretty much always has ease or pleasure on his side of the equation. As long as America is what this world has for a beat cop, that’s not the side of the equation we can afford to be on. Our Muslim brothers and sisters are feeling the wind in their Islamic sails. This is not the time to deflate our military power further.

  • Spartacus

    This depends on soooooo many things.
    They say that a fighter pilot needs a bare minimum of 300 flight hours per year to maintain proficiency in an extraordinarily complex job requiring an extreme skill set.  Now, the Air National Guard also maintains a healthy crop of pilots (most of whom are likely airline pilots now), and I assume they do fine, but yes, it makes sense to keep several dozen squadrons at the frosty-crisp edge of readiness.  It is wise to question the wisdom of cutting this down.
    On the other hand, if you’re going to go and do something like invade a large, sandy country on the other side of the world, you’re going to need lots of guys to drive lots of fuel trucks so that the operations tempo doesn’t bog down, and chemical decontamination guys, just in case things get kinda out of hand.  Can guys who have been through several months of training initially (at least — the former Regulars did it for years), several weeks per year, and one-ish weekend a month remember that ‘D’ is for “Drive,” ‘R’ is for “Reverse,” and that knob over there turns on the water for the porta-showers?  Yup, sure can!
    And it is not axiomatic that Regular units are more squared away than Reserve units.  Once upon a time in Bosnia, a battalion commander from our Regular Component counterparts visited our little operation, and commented that he would happily trade some of his guys for us any day.  (I’m seriously not making that up.)  Elite, in-demand units in the Regulars are unbeatable, but some non-elite Regular units will suffer in comparison with Reserve units staffed mostly by ambitious college kids trying to pay their tuition, who have enough private-sector earnings potential that they prefer to keep the GI Joe thing part-time, not full-time.
    So, I think it really depends on the specifics.  The current clowns in the West Wing are notorious for saying, “The Pentagon asked us [because we ordered them to ask us]…”  But Reserves are seriously less expensive to maintain — I’ve heard 1/6 the cost — and so, given some grim budget realities, I could totally see a wise, benevolent, and patriotic budget planner in the Pentagon opting for going Reserve in some areas rather than, say, slashing an entire infantry division.
    Sorry to disagree, but I have some opinions on that one!  😉

  • lee

    In Israel, they are talking about trimming the reservists! They are planning on reducing the length of reserve service, and the durating of the annual service. Go figure.
    The way it was when I was there (during ’81, Shalom l’Galil): the active military was a pretty good size, pretty much everyone between the ages of 18 and 21. They went in first, while reservists were called up. Once the first batch of reservists were ready to replace the active, the active returned to their bases where they got the next batch of reservists that were coming it.  I think the first batch of reservists were likely the most ready–younger, fresh-ish out of the military, and more recently through milu’im. (The university students were among the first reservists called up; it was later that the unviersity profs were called up.)
    This is the way it was for infantry, armor, etc. Specialized forces, such as pilots, were another kettle of fish, and I had no idea how that worked vis-a-vis active/reservists. (I do know that pilots served MUCH longer than the average conscript, and may be considered “permanent,” which doens’t necessarily mean career. It has to do with contractual obligations, and because of the training involved, they want a good contract with their pilots.)
    Things changed a lot in the 80’s and 90’s, so I am not sure how it is done now.
    I don’t trust the idea if it is a money saving measure. A better way to start saving money would be to cease buying biodiesel at ridiculous prices per gallon.
    BTW, hasn’t the Wun being getting rid of generals? No wonder he likes Erdogan so much–he did the same thing a few years back!

  • David Foster

    One of the things that kept France from intervening militarily when Nazi Germany moved into the Rhineland (in 1936, when Germany was not nearly as strong as it would be a couple of years later) was that their entire defense strategy was based on a massive mobilization plan, involving not only a million men or more, but also the requisition of large numbers of civilian vehicles.
    The political leaders were not eager for the disruption that would be caused by such a massive mobilization and asked the Staff if it wouldn’t be possible to call up a smaller force but still one sufficient for the job of driving out the Germans. The answer came back NO, there was only one plan and an alternative one couldn’t be quickly improvised. So the politicians were unwilling to pull the trigger on the massive mobiilization, and the Rhineland incursion became a fait accompli.
    I’m sure we have lots of levels of contingency plans, and can probably shuffle records electronically a lot faster than the French of 1936 could shuffle their paper-based files, but still, the disruption of calling up large numbers of reservists will act as an inhibitor of military action. In some cases this would be a good thing, in others, the opposite.

  • jj

    Spartacus makes a good point.  A lot of this depends on where you are and what you’re up to.  I can remember great and serious studies being done on what was wrong with the Air Force back in the 1980s.  They had a problem, and the problem was that when the full-time, front-line pilots came up against reserve units they routinely got waxed by the old guys.  That was very worrisome – how could that be?  The answer turned out to be simple, and it should have been obvious.  The “old guys” all had individual averages of about 1,600 hours flying time.  Of course they could – and did – regularly outperform “full-time” pilots whose total experience in the air typically averaged no more than one-third that amount.  Franklin Spinney, in his Defense Facts of Life study pointed out that in 1979 the average Air Force pilot made no more than 11 or 12 flights a month, for a total of 16 hours in the air.  When up against guys who already had that in their background, plus years thereafter jockeying airliners across the skies, the active duty guys got out-thought, out-maneuvered, out dirty-tricked – they were victims of wile, guile, and experience.  Interestingly, this is a lesson that the Air Force at least seems to have taken to heart.  I notice that most of the F-22s, the newest and allegedly best, most capable, and hottest plane we have seem to be in the hands of reserve units.  (The current oxygen problems the F-22 is experiencing was noticed by reservists from North Carolina, who were/are experienced enough to be aware that they weren’t just feeling their oats: that light-headed invincible feeling was actually hypoxia, not glowing good health right up to the point of black-out.  Problem with the air system on the plane, not problem with me: fix the damn plane.)
    Maybe this is something unique to the Air Force, that the oldsters can do as well or better than the full-timers.  Probably it is.  I don’t know how it would play out with the ground troops, or the Navy – likely not as well.  But it seems to me that given the prevalence and dependence on superior weaponry you could have the reservists, perhaps, driving most of the tanks, for example.  I admit freely I know nothing about the reality, but it seems at least possible that, applying the Air Force lesson, you could save the front-line troops to be the troops, and put guys who’ve been through all the training and out the other end, and have a lot of experience with it, into the tanks supporting them.  A tank is brute force, but it’s also a precision weapon.  Does having done it more add up to doing it better?  I don’t know, but it’s at least a possibility.
    One of the reasons our military is very expensive is because we don’t keep it on the mantel.  The threat assessors back in the day were fond of using what the Soviet Union was up to as justifications for their own shiny new pet projects.  But – in private they were never as worried about the Soviet Union as logic would have dictated they should have been.  In Europe during the cold war the Soviets (and their “allies”) had 40,000 tanks, ready to roll over our paltry 9,000 or so (you can never get a straight number) all the way to the English Channel.  How could you not be worried about that?  The answer was that the Soviet units kept them on the mantel.  They only started them up about once a year, for set-piece exercises – and when they went to start them about 85% of them wouldn’t start without arduous and time-consuming mechanical surgery.  If they have 40,000 of them but 34,000 of them won’t start, it’s not much of a problem.  They won’t be given the time to get them started.
    We, on the hand, started ours up all the time, and used them, burning fuel, breaking them, damaging them, wrecking some of them: beating the hell out of them.  Which is what, we have always believed, they’re for.  Same for the Air Force: our planes didn’t get used much, but they did get used.  The Soviets kept theirs on the mantel.  Our pilots didn’t really have enough practice, but theirs had none.  Our Navy was constantly running, theirs was mostly resting at anchor.  The US Navy routinely moved at about 15 knots – unless in a hurry – and the old Soviet navy rarely got above about 10 – their machinery was delicate.
    We use our stuff.  We burn a hell of a lot of fuel, it’s expensive.  We expend ordnance and missiles in training, it’s expensive.  We wrestle with the thing as long as we can, but eventually have to punch out, and the F/A-18 ends up scattered through the hills outside San Diego – and that’s insanely expensive.  All this stuff is insanely expensive, but we accept it.  Or did, for a long time.  Now we’re broke.  The dynamic has changed.  I’m as hopeful as Spartacus that we can get some thoughtful, good, and far-sighted budget and organization people in the pentagon taking an intelligent approach to it, and really looking seriously at where substituting reserves can not only work, but may also work out to be a positive attribute.

  • Spartacus

    So, let me get this straight:
    * Because the German Army only had one plan in 1914, and it didn’t exactly fit the situation, they decided to go to war with France, and the world was never the same.
    * Because the French Army only had one plan in 1936, and it didn’t exactly fit the situation, they decided not to go to war with Germany, and the world was never the same.
    Is there some law about history being supremely ironic, or does it just work out that way?

  • Ymarsakar

    Spartacus, humans are just that sort of creature. But don’t worry, I’m sure the Left has a plan to change all those historical tragedies brought about by right wing governments.

  • lee

    The Soviet machinery, even if it started, didn’t work so well. The T-72 tank was supposed to be so sleek, and its low profile was supposed to make it harder to hit. Except to get the low profile, they took out the turret floor. So when the turret turned, the crew had to move around with it. (And ta ks are not the roomiest things to begin with.  So a T-72 could only get one shot off for every four or five that a Merkava got off.

  • Ymarsakar

    The Left were cooking something like this up. Except they called it the “draft”. It wouldn’t stop them from making their secret wars against enemies both domestic and foreign, getting a whole bunch of people killed, but it avoids empowering the US military to any great extent.
    Until the Left converts and subverts the US military, they aren’t necessarily going to go into phase 2 of the draft plan.
    If they can’t get a draft, they’ll rely on a reservist pool, at least until they have finished subverting the military honchos.

  • David Foster

    Soartacus…re the first case, see my post about the Plan and the Kaiser: On Trusting Experts…and Which Experts to Trust.

  • Oldflyer

    There are several very good posts about the strengths and weaknesses of the Reserves. 
    I suspect that I outrank most on the board in terms of longevity, and I remember when the whole Reserve structure was a bad, and expensive, joke.  I recall that during the Pueblo crisis, one of the few times that the Navy called up the Reserves, there was a political hullabaloo because their airplanes were so badly out dated.  So, to quiet the uproar, one squadron was given my squadron’s airplanes.  Then the Reserve squadrons started bitching because they were not being used effectively; but they were not constituted for quick deployment; and before they could reach that state they wanted to go home.    My regular squadron was left  with badly outdated machines, so much so that we were not allowed to deploy to Southeast Asia with them on schedule.    Instead we were sent to the Mediterranean as part of a painted fleet on a painted ocean.   At least our wives were happy,  the warriors among us not so much.
    There was a concerted effort after that to bring the Reserves up some reasonable capability.   I cannot speak for all, but I know that all USN transport ops are flown by Reservists.  I believe that a very high percentage of  Air Force tanker and transports are as well.  My Best Man was a life time National Guard fighter pilot, rising to Group Commander, of a group flying the F-102—same as G.W. Bush.  These guys were well paid, seldom left home, and well trained and proficient at what they did. 
    I have a young friend who served for several years in an FA-18 squadron after his active duty tour; he rose to Squadron command.  He never deployed with the Reserves all through Iraq and Afghanistan.  The USN simply does not seem willing to deploy reserve combat squadrons.
    The bottom line is that I believe that there are certain missions that fit very well into the Reserve force.  I also believe that the culture has changed so the Reserves are a more serious group than they were pre-Pueblo.  Balancing Reserve and Regular force levels is well above my pay grade.

  • Bookworm

    Oldlflyer — thank you.  That’s an excellent insight.  My memory of reservists is 30 years old.  Plus, of course, I saw that PBS video that painted them as helpless morons. 

    I just worry that, when it comes to the current administration, anything it touches will go sour.

  • Ymarsakar

    I second that instinct. Although I wouldn’t use the word “sour” so much to describe what’s going to happen.

  • Jose

    During my active duty career I served with reservists in both peacetime and war.  Some were completely helpless and others were very, very proficient. 
    I only have one thing to add to what has already been said.  I think those with substandard abilities and attitudes are more likely to be weeded out during active duty service.  A poor reservist can take up space almost indefinitely.

  • Ymarsakar

    The reserves are often times used for specialized skills. When they don’t need those skills on call, they don’t have to pay for the maintenance of said human resources. Meanwhile, the civilian sector pays higher for the same skills, so the  human is making money while living a normal civilian life and is thus not tempted to un enlist from the military for higher pay, given he can do both as a reservist.
    However, just as New Orleans demonstrated, a military that won’t be deployed for political reasons and to make Americans suffer, isn’t going to do much on its own. A military that is sent on crazy missions, have their secrets divulged, and then get shot down by stingers the Administration supplied to the insurgents, is either reality or a bad caricature of the Afghan-Soviet war. I surmise that most of America’s crazy military disasters were a result of political, not military, decisions. More often than not, from the State Department.
    Having grunts and people doing the heavy lifting or utilizing specialized combat skills that can only be maintained in combat, isn’t something a reserve force can generate easily.

  • Spartacus

    Mr. Foster — Wow.  I was completely unaware of either of those conversations.  Thank you!
    Oldflyer — Speaking of the Pueblo Incident.  A friend of my father’s was the duty officer in Honolulu when the breathless initial call came in: “THE NORTH KOREANS HAVE SEIZED THE PUEBLO!!!”  Being Air Force instead of Navy, and thus not so familiar with the names of all the ships in the Pacific, he fell back on wit, drily saying, “I didn’t even know they were in Colorado.”  There was a brief pause on the other end, followed by hysterical laughter.  What’s really the point of having an international crisis if you can’t get a few good jokes out of it?

  • Ymarsakar

    I’m of the mindset that whenever an enemy tortures, kills, imprisons, or inflicts casualties on one of my people, I take out 10,000 of theirs in retaliation.
    It’s not particularly even, but then again, neither is war.

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