Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts Total Force Policy and the Abrams Doctrine: Unfulfilled Promise, Uncertain Future

Total Force Policy and the Abrams Doctrine: Unfulfilled Promise, Uncertain Future

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. 

Origins of the Total Force Concept

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.

The Abrams Doctrine

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.

The Total Force in Action

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.

(1) “Mirror Imaging” called for keeping the same kinds of combat units in both the Active force and the National Guard (i.e., armored brigades and divisions). This principle held that the Guard would be a more equal and relevant partner if had a similar force structure. Thus, the Guard retained large, expensive, and complex heavy combat forces, though it lacked the time and resources to maintain their readiness or mobilize and deploy them efficiently.

(2) “First-to-Fight Funding,” held that units that were likely to see combat first should have all the financial resources they needed to be fully armed, trained, and manned. The remaining forces, primarily in the RC received minimal funding for maintenance of equipment and individual and crew training. This resulted in steeply tiered readiness with many reserve units being unready for deployment with significant post-mobilization training and equipping.

(3) “Cascading Modernization,” called for reserves to receive equipment from active forces after the active units had been modernized. Saddled with older and worn equipment the reserves would face higher maintenance costs, suffer less equipment availability, and have less capability than the active forces.

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.

The Abrams Doctrine and Total Force Concept in the 21st Century

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.

The Future of the Total Force Concept

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.

(1) The size of the total Army in relation to the population as a whole will likely continue to decrease in the years ahead as the U.S. population grows and technology is increasingly employed as a substitute for manpower.

(2) Distinctions between the active and reserve forces will likely decline. During the Cold War, significant portions of the active component were based overseas. Additionally, most soldiers were not married. The spouses of married soldiers were not employed.  In the future, most active duty soldiers will be based inside the United States. They will be married and their spouses will likely be employed in the civilian sector. As a result, in the future the ties of the active force to local communities may be nearly as substantial as those of the reserves. At the same time, defense policies will increasingly emphasize a “continuum of service,” allowing active and reserve troops to move more easily over the course of their career from one component to the other, blurring the distinction between them. 

(3) Civilian workers and private contractors will increasingly supply a greater portion of American military might. In the near future, the private sector, rather than the reserves might become the more significant reservoir of additional military capacity and a more important link to the American people. Indeed, as the economy becomes increasingly international, the decision of a U.S. president to commit troops may commit the global economy as well.

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.

(1) Future Army investments must balance needs to sustain a trained and ready force, modernization, and current operations, ensuring that the Army does not again become a hollow force.

(2) RC policies and programs must be revamped and resourced to increase the capacity of citizen-soldiers to respond rapidly to the wide range of emerging missions.

(3) Defense leaders, civilian, active, and reserve, must abandon their commitment to traditional policies and force structures that had the virtue of preserving the status quo, but limited the value of reserve forces to adapting to future needs.


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.