by James Jay Carafano
February 3, 2005
James Jay Carafano is a Senior Fellow at The Heritage Foundation. He is the coauthor of the forthcoming book, Winning the Long War: Lessons from the Cold War for Defeating Terrorism and Preserving Freedom. This essay is a condensed version of a paper that he presented at the FPRI’s December 2004 conference on “The Future of the Reserves and National Guard.”
The Abrams Doctrine is widely interpreted as an expression of General Creighton Abrams’ determination to maintain a clear linkage between the employment of the Army and the engagement of public support for military operations. Abrams, according to the doctrine, established this bond by creating a force structure that integrated Reserve and Active Components so closely as to make them inextricable, ensuring after Vietnam that presidents would never be able to again send the Army to war without the Reserves and the commitment of the American people.
Whether Abrams actually intended to father a doctrine or if his efforts created a unique extra-Constitutional constraint on presidential power is open to debate. The Army rooted its force structure policies in the Total Force Concept initiated by Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird. Attempting to address the imbalance between budgets and strategy, Laird saw the Total Force as a means to provide sufficient troops for the nation’s security needs without the costly burden of maintaining a large standing-army.
Furthermore, while Laird’s new defense policies and Abrams’ initiatives proved adequate for maintaining a large standing-force, they were never equal to the task of sustaining readiness and modernization and, in fact, implementing the Total Force Concept contributed to chronic unpreparedness in the Army’s Reserve Components.
The genesis of the Total Force lay in President Nixon’s 1968 election year promise to end the draft. In the wake of the North Vietnamese Tet Offensive and declining popular support for the war, Nixon promised to end conscription, reasoning that it would remove a ready target for antiwar protestors and Congressional opposition. Shortly after taking office, Secretary Laird recommended Nixon appoint a commission to determine the most practical means for abolishing the draft while ensuring the United States could still meet its defense commitments. The Commission, chaired by former Eisenhower Defense Secretary Thomas S. Gates Jr., concluded that an "all-volunteer force" could serve as a practical alternative to conscription.
The Gates report served as the basis for subsequent reforms. From the outset, Laird knew that the all-volunteer force would require substantial Reserve Components (RC). The additional costs of recruiting and retaining volunteers and simultaneously pressure to reduce defense spending made reliance on Reserves a virtual prerequisite. Unless mobilized, Reserves cost only a fraction of the expense of maintaining Active forces.
When General Creighton Abrams became Army Chief of Staff plans were already underway to reduce the post-Vietnam Active Army. They were inadequate, the chief concluded, to provide a sufficient conventional force to meet the Soviet threat. Laird’s successor as Secretary of Defense, James R. Schlesinger, agreed to allow Abrams to increase the size of the Army to 16 divisions. Growing to 16 divisions without heavy reliance on the RC was simply unaffordable. Abrams’ decision fit well within existing Defense Department Total Force policies.
Proponents of the Abrams Doctrine contend that dependence on RC serves as an extra-Constitutional tripwire on the presidential use of military power. Citizen-soldiers, they would provide a strong bond between the military and civil society. Any large-scale mobilization of Reserves would affect communities throughout the country and engage the American people.
The notion that Abrams believed force structures should be rigged to provide a restraint on the presidential power is more of an open question. Abrams died in 1974 and never formally articulated a specific doctrine. There is also scant evidence that the employment of the Reserves has served to constrain presidential decision-making.
While their decisions might not have altered presidential power, the vision of leaders like Laird and Abrams did ensure that the military would have sufficient force structure to address its various defense tasks. On the other hand, they proved largely a failure at maintaining adequate readiness to accomplish these missions. The inability to sustain fully trained and ready Army RC undercut their value both as a military instrument and an effective link to the nation.
Three principles evolved to support the Total Force Concept that ensured that the Active Army, while not addressing the chronic under-funding of the RC in a holistic manner, would capture most additional resources.
RC leaders largely accepted Total Force polices and trumpeted the significance of the Abrams Doctrine because they justified their missions and the importance of the reserves, ensured a modicum of resources, and provided a ready justification to defend the size and composition of reserve forces.
In response to the global war on terrorism, reserves have been called to serve in numbers unprecedented since the Second World War. The U.S. Army simply could not conduct its missions worldwide without the contributions of its RC. The accomplishments of the reserves certainly validate that underlying premise of the Total Force Concept. The Total Force has proven itself an effective means to rapidly expand military capacity to meet changing national security requirements. On the other hand, stresses on the Reserves also reflect the lack of adequate investment in the Total Force.
There are good reasons for investing in the reserves rather than returning to conscription or expanding the active Army, but they are practical matters that have little to do with sustaining the Abrams Doctrine. Additionally, the future course of military developments suggests that the Doctrine’s utility for defining the link between the nation and the service will only diminish over time.
Simply put, the changing character of military forces may make the justification for the Abrams Doctrine irrelevant. As the Army evolves, the notion that the reserves could be used as an extra-Constitutional restraint on presidential power could well be seen as an increasingly unrealistic anachronism.
A suitable replacement for the Total Force Concept would have to achieve three critical objectives.
Sustaining a large and capable Army RC in the years ahead will require significant investments. Recruiting efforts will have to be increased, pay and benefits improved, equipment replaced, personnel polices revised, equipment recapitalized, and units restructured to meet the needs of anticipated future missions. These are investments worth making, but achieving them will require the Pentagon to think differently about how it maintains its RC, as well as robust defense budgets adequate to meet the needs of both active and reserve forces.
Junking the policies justified by the Total Force Concept and the Abrams Doctrine may be a prerequisite for rethinking how the reserves are organized, employed, and resourced. The notion that force structure should serve as some kind of extra-Constitutional constraint on the use of power should be abandoned, in part because of its dubious utility, but primarily because it has resulted in retaining inefficient and under-resourced force structures.
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