Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts The Future of the Guard and Reserve: Roles, Missions and Force Structure

The Future of the Guard and Reserve: Roles, Missions and Force Structure

War is both an arbiter of institutions and the strongest catalyst of change. We stand more than three years into today’s conflict, and several national security institutions have been found wanting and in need of adaptation. The National Guard and Reserve, on the other hand, have proven themselves to be an exceptional source of trained manpower and an invaluable insurance policy against a series of strategic mistakes. But they are now paying a heavy cost for our failure to examine obsolete assumptions about the way we are organized and how we think about future threats.

In the midst of a long-term conflict against an amorphous enemy, it is difficult to define the future roles and missions of the Reserve Component (RC) with great precision. But it is absolutely necessary to begin the debate. Nearly three years of deployments since 9/11, including Operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom, have significantly strained the active component, as well as the Guard and Reserve.

Reserve contribution, measured in millions of man-days has reached all time peaks, and is now more than fives times the mean level of the Clinton era. [1] More than 400,000 members of the RC have been activated for either homeland security or overseas missions. As of 3 January 2005, almost 180,000 Reservists and Guardsmen were on active duty, including 153,488 from the Army Reserve or Army National Guard, and 11,444 from the Marine Reserve. [2] Reservists make up 40 percent of the force in Iraq, and an even higher share of the Balkan contingent.

To the credit of our RC, they have exceeded expectations in terms of their readiness and performance. There have been some rough patches, but by and large, the Reserves have performed well. However, the cumulative impact of an unbalanced force structure, and competing demands for homeland and overseas deployments have come very close to breaking the back of the Total Force. [3]

The strains placed on the Total Force will undoubtedly be felt for years to come, both in terms of the lost manpower as Guardsmen vote with their feet, and by increased costs of accessing, training, and retaining future Reservists. [4]

Future Roles/Mission/Structure

Future roles should be founded on a few propositions. The first is that the Reserve Component is critical for links to Main Street USA. One does not have to accept the viability of the Abrams Doctrine to recognize the importance of domestic support for long-term conflicts.

Second, the concrete and cost effective contributions the Reserve system makes to our national security have to be recognized. The performance of the Guard and Reserves in just the past 36 months more than demonstrates its utility. Finally, we need to acknowledge some element of uncertainty. When resources are tight, and when there is a great premium being paid for hedging against the uncertain, the existence of ready Reserve elements for low probability but high consequence events appears very prudent.

So what are these roles and how should the RC adapt? The Guard’s leadership has started to refocus the Guard for the future. But rapid reaction forces and Enhanced Response Force Packages are minor steps given the nature of the threat. [5] It’s time to think much more boldly. As former ASD for Reserve Affairs Stephen Duncan has concluded, “The hard decisions to prepare must not be postponed.” [6]

The remainder of this essay lays out three roles for the future of the Guard and Reserve. The proposed structure for these functions represent hard decisions that we can no longer delay.

“Traditional” Warfighting. We have not finished with what Michael Vlahos calls “Old War’s High Ritual.” [7] The U.S. is going to need an extensive capacity to conduct so-called traditional warfare, and we need to understand that rotational requirements could require the need to occasionally tap into the RC during periods of great emergency. We must also prepare the RC deal with nontraditional forms of conflict. [8]

However, we also need to realize that we no longer have the luxury of mobilizing and then training our RC, we have to expect to train for specific missions first, and be able to rapidly mobilize and deploy ready units. This augurs for higher levels of readiness, requiring more focused preparations and organizational alignments to provide first-class training during peacetime. In this regard, the Chief of Staff of the Army has appropriately called for a change in our approach to preparing the Reserve. In the past, we thought of the process as one of “Alert, Mobilize, Train and Deploy.” General Schoomaker’s vision to “Train, Alert, and Deploy” is apropos for our future needs. [9]

Accordingly, this proposal is designed to meet a variety of roles and missions with forces that are specifically recruited, trained, organized and equipped to fulfill very specific functions. This design recognizes the historical validity of a warfighting role for the RC and the need to hedge against uncertainty. The RC remains a significant backstop against future instability either at home or abroad. Consistent with other formal assessments of the Guard’s structure, the National Guard should be sized to provide an efficient operational reserve, structured to provide a total of five Division equivalents, including a balanced set of focused maneuver brigades (5 heavy/5 medium/5 light) with their associated support elements.

These forces would be trained and prepared primarily but not exclusively for a warfighting role.

Stability and Support Operations. It is clear we are going to need to support stability operations and constabulary missions and that the nature and frequency of these taskings is going to require organizations that are principally organized, trained, and equipped for those missions. Among the greatest threats this country faces, after rogue nuclear states, is a number of failed or failing states that cannot fulfill their security or public service functions. These are potential breeding grounds for terrorists, and generate profound humanitarian and spillover costs. Our military will continue to provide forces to help stabilize and secure such states.

Such missions are the inescapable responsibility of our world role and position. [10] We need to prepare for the inevitable Savage Wars of Peace, including specialized forces capable of stability interventions. [11] This is not a “lesser included task,” akin to taking children to kindergarten. This is not a watered down or anemic semi- military entity. It must be underscored that the best peacekeeper is a very credible combat soldier. However, this warrior must be organized, trained and equipped to fulfill his mission, and be educated with the necessary mindset to excel.

The requirement for participation in international stability and support operations is another reality of today’s complex security tapestry. Accordingly, a division composed of three to four Stability Enhancement Brigades (STEBs) is proposed. The Army Reserve may be the more appropriate component to build this force in. There are several models for the specific composition of this division, including work sponsored by the Pentagon’s Office of Force Transformation. [12] Much of the skill sets and expertise are already present in the Reserves and need only be organized. Other reserves of other service elements could also make a contribution to a standing joint task force.

Homeland Security. Finally, we need to acknowledge the most prominent change in our security environment, the rise of modern terrorism and America’s vulnerability. As the Hart- Rudman Commission noted in 1999, “For many years to come Americans will become increasingly less secure, and much less secure than they now believe themselves to be.” [13]

It is obvious that we were unprepared in 2001, and despite clear progress, we remain unprepared today for events that will overwhelm state or local capacity. [14] Three years after 9/11 it is still unclear what role the Department of Defense is taking with respect to homeland security. [15] The scale of future scenarios is numbing, and we need to dispel the notion that catastrophic acts in the coming decade will be single events, divorced from other conflicts, contained to merely New York or Washington. We could face some Dark Winters in our future. [16]

This is an area ripe for RC participation. Numerous other studies have echoed similar findings. [17] Various assessments conclude that there is a substantive role for the Guard in the homeland security mission. [18] There is also an appreciation that the Guard’s “deep knowledge of emergency response systems, crisis management needs and law enforcement concerns make it ideally suited” for an increased role in homeland security. [19] There is also an explicit understanding of the Guard’s utility as a local vice federal entity. At the same time, there is a growing awareness that the scope of the threat generates requirements that are not being met today.

The National Guard is uniquely positioned; geographically, politically, and capability, to contribute to our defense. In many respects, it is already “forward deployed” near future battlefields. To fulfill this vital role, a total of three Division Equivalents would be allocated primarily homeland security missions. This Homeland Security Corps would be comprised of 12 Security Enhancement Brigades (SEBs). One brigade would be assigned to each of the Department of Homeland Security’s regions. One additional brigade would be earmarked for potential foreign deployments or as a reinforcing brigade for special events (Olympics, political conventions, major sporting events, Inaugural parades, etc). This brigade would annually work with that Department’s regional director for training and exercises. The twelfth brigade is designated for missile defense assignments.

The Homeland Security Corps could be regionally organized under Title 32 authority with agreements of the supported Governors. Alternatively, the SEBs could be allocated to Northern Command for employment as federalized forces in an emergency. These brigades would be recruited from and expected to serve within very short-notice for service in their region and within the country as their primary mission.

The SEB brigade headquarters organization would include a substantial command and control capability that is interoperable with state and local emergency management systems. Each SEB would be comprised of a:

  • military police or security battalion,
  • chemical-biological incident response battalion, (including Civil Support Teams.
  • combat support battalion (engineering, logistics and transportation assets), and a
  • medical support company.

Homeland security would be the primary, but not necessarily exclusive mission of these brigades. It is anticipated that this realignment will materially contribute to patching up today’s major gaps, and close the rhetoric/resource gap that currently exists at home. It will also dispel the “dual mission” myth that currently undercuts readiness for the Guard’s warfighting and domestic security roles. High levels of readiness, in terms of structure, training and equipment, for specific missions, will be the hallmark of our RC into the next era.

The nature of the threat must be recognized. The continental United States is no longer a sanctuary. Our homeland security strategy cannot rely entirely on military offense, we need a “defense in depth” that holistically prevents, protects and responds to catastrophic incidents. [20] The Guard and Reserves will contribute differently, but will be critical to this “defense in depth.”


Today’s Guard and Reserve must evolve in response to the strategic, political and technological revolutions swirling around us. Standing still may be an option but it is not an option that serves the Nation well today or the Guard and Reserve in the long run. Nor is cutting the RC to pay for the transformation of the active force. The RC is worthy of both attention and additional resources to fill critical roles in our national security system.

As the President stated in his national security strategy, “Our military’s highest priority is to defend the United States—the threats and enemies we must confront have changed, and so must our forces.” [21] More than just the active force needs to be changed for this new protracted conflict. It is our highest priority.


  • [1] Figures from (PDF), dated Sept. 24, 2004.
  • [2] These statistics have been drawn from Department of Defense, News Release, Nov. 2, 2004, at
  • [3] Gregg Jaffe, “As Ranks Dwindle in a Reserve Unit, Army’s Woes Mount,” Wall Street Journal, Aug. 4, 2004, p. 1; James Kitfield, “Guard and Reserve in a Time of War,” Air Force Magazine, July 2004, pp. 22-28. See also: memo-20dec2004.htm.
  • [4] Dave Moniz, “Strained Army National Guard Having Tough Time Recruiting,” USA Today, July 20, 2004, p. 5; Robert Burns, “Recruiting Gets Harder for Guard,” Philadelphia Inquirer, Sept. 24, 2004.
  • [5] H. Steven Blum, “The Army National Guard-Back to the Future,” Arlington, VA: AUSA, Landpower Essay, Sept. 2003.
  • [6] Stephen M. Duncan, A War of a Different Kind: Military Force and America’s Search for Homeland Security, Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2004, p. 268.
  • [7] Michael Vlahos, “Military Identity in an Age of Empire,”, June 19, 2003.
  • [8] See Thomas X. Hammes, The Sling and The Stone, St. Paul, MN: Zenith Press, 2004.
  • [9] Les Brownlee and Gen. Peter Schoomaker, USA, “Serving A Nation at War: A Campaign Quality Army with Joint and Expeditionary Capabilities,” Parameters, Summer 2004, pp. 5- 23.
  • [10] James Dobbins, “Nation Building: The Inescapable Responsibility of the World Only Superpower,” RAND Review, Vol. 27, No. 2, Summer 2003.
  • [11] For an eloquent history, Max Boot, Savage Wars of Peace: Small Wars and the Rise of American Power, New York: Basic Books, 2002.
  • [12] Hans Binnendijk and Stuart Johnson, eds., Transforming for Stabilization and Reconstruction, National War College: Center for Technology and National Security Policy, 2004.
  • [13] Hart-Rudman Commission, New World Coming: American Security in the 21st Century, Washington, DC, September 15, 1999, p. 8. (Phase 1 Report.)
  • [14] Stephen Flynn, America the Vulnerable: How Our Government is Failing to Protect Us from Terrorism, New York: Harper Collins, 2004; Gary Hart and Warren Rudman, America Still Unprepared Still in Danger, New York: Council on Foreign Affairs, October 2002.
  • [15] James Jay Carafano, “Citizen-Soldiers and Homeland Security: A Strategic Assessment,” Arlington, VA: Lexington Institute, March 2004, p. 15.
  • [16] Peter Roman, “The Dark Winter of Bioterrorism,” Orbis, Summer 2002, pp. 469-482.
  • [17] The U.S. National Security Commission concluded that DOD make “homeland security a primary mission of the National Guard, and the Guard should be reorganized, properly trained, and adequately equipped to undertake that mission.” Road Map for National Security, p. 25.
  • [18] Jack Spencer and Larry M. Wortzel, “The Role of the National Guard in Homeland Security,” Backgrounder 1532, The Heritage Foundation, April 8, 2002.
  • [19] Advisory Panel to Assess Response Capabilities for Terrorism Involving WMD, Implementing the National Strategy, Washington, DC: RAND, Dec. 15, 2003, pp. 101-7.
  • [20] Antulio J. Echevarria and Bert B. Tussing, “From Defending Forward to a“Global Defense-In-Depth” Carlisle, PA: Army War College, Oct. 2003.
  • [21] George W. Bush, The National Security Strategy of the United States, Washington, DC: The White House, Sept. 2002.

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