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Total Force: Federal Reserves and State National Guards

Authored by COL Charles E. Heller. | December 1994

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This study is unique among recent works published by the Strategic Studies Institute because it is primarily a survey of current basic information concerning the Armed Forces Reserve Components. In addition, it provides an analysis and forecasts their status and roles in the future.

The study explains the Total Force Policy, its origins and application from 1970 to its first test in 1990 and 1991 during OPERATIONS DESERT SHIELD and DESERT STORM. The post-cold war defense reductions have caused an even greater reliance upon the Reserve Components than anticipated by the Defense establishment.

The legal basis for the establishment of the Reserve Components for the Army, Air Force, Navy, Marine Corps and Coast Guard (a part of the Navy upon mobilization) and the reason there are two separate reserves for the Army and Air Force are reviewed. In the final analysis, the legal foundation for the reserves rests with the U.S. Constitution and the traditions of the nation. In the 20th century, legislation has been passed placing greater reliance on the Reserve Components while enhancing their readiness.

Over the years Reserve Component categories of individual service and types of active duty performed have been refined and defined. The complexities of the modern world necessitated increased flexibility when utilizing citizen soldiers. Access to reservists depends upon the individual's category of service ranging from the immediately available Selected Reserve to the prior service Individual Ready Reserve. There are also different categories of active duty which an individual reservist performs either involuntarily or voluntarily. The types of training range from Annual Training to the newest category, Active Duty Special Works.

Each Armed Service and the Reserve Components within each service have varying management structures, all of which are legislated by the Congress. A detailed description of each is given within the text of this report. In the case of the Army and Air Force there are two Reserve Components each, the National Guards of the individual states and the Federal Reserve. For the Navy, Marine Corps and the Coast Guard there is only a Federal Reserve.

While there are similarities in pay, benefits and entitlements differ between the Active Components and their reserves. Reservists on active duty do receive the same pay, and much of the same allowances as their active counterparts. However, entitlements differ depending on the length of the tour of active duty.

The need for well-equipped, organized, and trained Reserve Components increased after the 1898 Spanish- American War. As a consequence the need for full-time support for the Reserve Components progressively increased as modern warfare became more and more complex and deadly. Today this support ranges from Active Component soldiers serving with the Reserve Components to government civilians and also reservists on active duty.

Gaining access to the Reserve Components is well-defined and the decision to mobilize reservists for overseas deployment or domestic missions is a political act prompted by the severity of the national emergency. Five mobilization categories will bring reservists to active duty. Each category requires varying degrees of approval from the chief executive to the Congress. The categories range from Selected Mobilization to Total Mobilization.

After reviewing those elements of commonality among the Armed Forces' Reserve Components, the study considers in detail the state National Guards and the Federal Reserves of each Armed Service in the Defense establishment. The sections on each Reserve include a brief history of its evolution in the Defense establishment. The report gives an overview of each component as it exists today regarding command, manning, structure, management, stationing, equipment, training, and education.

Next the author projects what the future holds for each Service's Reserve. This section is speculative; however, it considers past peacetime periods in which the Armed Forces and their reserves have languished without funding or interest on the part of the government and its citizens. This perspective, however, is tempered by the realization that the United States has never found itself to be the only superpower in a multipolar world. This is coupled with the recent experience of what the new order will bring in the 21st century in terms of using armed forces. Examples of the new missions are numerous and include the Gulf War, Bosnia, Somilia, Haiti, Hurricane Andrew, the 1994 California earthquake, the 1994 California urban riots, and midwestern floods. All of these incidents required the use of Reserve Component individuals and units and give a clear indication of what the Armed Forces and their Reserve Components should expect well into the next century.


The United States has evolved a unique reserve system for its military establishment. It is a system that was originally constructed partly as a result of an 18th century fear of standing armies and strong centralized governments, and is imbedded with myth and tradition. It is a system that is laced with domestic politics, spiced with states rights, and contains strong citizen-soldier lobby groups. The reserves today are divided between the state militias or National Guards and Federal Reserves for the Army and Air Force, while the Navy, Marines, and Coast Guard have only the latter. Although U.S. wars are fought and won by citizen armies, the reserve system has rarely met the readiness claims of its citizen-soldiers or the Regular, now called Active Component (AC), establishment. Each military service's components, Active and Reserve, warily regards the other with skepticism and, at times, hostility. American society has accepted the contentious nature of the relationship between Regular and citizen-soldiers be they reserves, wartime volunteers or conscripts. However, in the major wars citizen-soldiers have been the nation's saviors. The fact that the Regular establishment has traditionally borne the first onslaught of a conflict or that its professionalism has molded the citizen forces mobilized to fight the nation's wars is usually lost in the euphoria of citizen-dominated Armed Forces' victory over an enemy.

Today, the Armed Forces' Reserve Components (RC), to include the U.S. Coast Guard which, although under the Department of Transportation in peacetime, is part of the Navy during a national emergency or war, play a greater role than ever in national security. The Cold War was partly responsible for this increased reliance because the Soviet threat appeared so overwhelming and the cost of maintaining large Active forces was prohibitive. Then, too, it is due partly to the failure to mobilize, except for a small number, the RC for the Vietnam War. After this Asian war many defense analysts and military leaders claimed that the eventual lack of public support could be attributed, in part, to President Lyndon Johnson's failure to fully mobilize the reserves, and that this politically motivated decision, in turn, did not fully commit the American public.

As a consequence, as the Vietnam War ended, a new policy was evolved that had significant impact on the nation's reserve forces. On August 21, 1970,the Total ForcePolicy for the Armed Forces was introduced by Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird. It was a vehicle to promote a reduced response time for the reserves to back a small Active establishment in a national emergency. Also it was seen as an economy measure in anticipation of the defense budget's growth to eventually accommodate the increased cost of all-volunteer forces planned for commencement in 1972. In 1979, the policy was spurred on by the beginning of a massive rearmament program initiated by President Jimmy Carter's administration after the Soviets invaded Afghanistan. According to the Department of Defense Reserve Forces Policy Board, the Total Force Policy implies an increased interdependence of active and reserve forces. It absolutely requires that the availability and readiness of reserve forces must be as certain as the availability of active forces.1 Thus, once again, the RC, as they were prior to Vietnam, would be the immediate and primary source of additional forces in a national emergency.

The Armed Forces' responses were varied. Those that are platform oriented, that is depend on large weapons systems such as aircraft and vessels, the Navy, Coast Guard and Air Force, approached the policy differently than the two services which are manpower intensive, the Army and Marines. Obviously, the loss of a number of ships and aircraft in a major war, given the length of time required by defense industry to replace such high technology weaponry, would result in excess manpower. In the Air Force, for example, some reserve pilots have greater experience because of prior active duty with the AC and civilian jobs with airlines which equates to more flying hours than their active counterparts. As for the Navy's experience, it is almost impossible to man a vessel with reservists in any considerable number because of the complexity of modern technology. Such is not the case with the Marine Corps and the Army. A conflict of any proportion would result in initial manpower and unit requirements. Also, combat losses would need to be replaced immediately, initially from the reserves. Then too, it is expensive to keep on active duty certain type units such as Graves Registration and Civil Affairs for which there is no immediate requirement upon mobilization.

The 1990 Persian Gulf War saw a return to the use of the RC in a national emergency and was seen by many as the Total Force Policy's vindication. The reserves of all the services mobilized and deployed, sometimes in advance of active forces. Reserve combat and support units representing the Marine Corps, Navy, and Air Force, and Army support units deployed.

The Gulf War can now be seen as a unique event. As a consequence of Cold War preparations, both the AC and the RC were better prepared than in the nation's past major wars. However, the public's inclination after a conflict is to return to normalcy as rapidly as possible. This attitude carries over in terms of defense appropriations and strength authorization so that active and reserve peacetime establishments are usually minimum forces. The surprising part of this traditional approach to war is that the ACs of all services have had, in varying degrees, problems successfully integrating their reserves within their establishments in peacetime for reasons that range from the traditional hostility between citizen-soldiers and Regulars to competition for scarce dollars. The successes and problems withattempts at integration will become readily apparent as the reserves are examined below.


1. Department of Defense, Annual Report of the Reserve Forces Policy Board, FY 1975, Washington, DC: GPO, 1976, p. 2.