Travis Sharp is a Research Associate at the Center for a New American Security, a DC-based think tank focusing on military affairs and national security. Along with John Nagl (who helped draft the Army’s counterinsurgency manual), Sharp co-authored a 2010 report called An Indispensable Force: Investing in America’s National Guard and Reserves. He recently spoke with Need To Know producer Erin Chapman about the Guard and Reserves’ evolving mission and the potential for more fully utilizing their skills.
Erin Chapman: What was the impetus for drafting a report about the National Guard and Reserves?
Travis Sharp: The reason that the Center for a New American Security (CNAS) decided to do a report on the National Guard and Reserves is that their roles have really changed a lot over the last decade. The conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan have presented new pressures on both, but there hasn’t been a lot of work done on policies to address their new roles.
Here in Washington, in the national security policy community, the Guard and Reserves are poorly covered. This is partly due to a bias coming from the full-time active duty military force. And in DC, most people are more in contact with that active-duty side of the military. So, it’s more of a challenge to get the Guard and Reserves on the radar of policy makers.
Chapman: How are the Guard and Reserves different from the rest of the armed forces?
Sharp: You can divide the U.S. military roughly into what we call active component and reserve component. The active component is full-time military, those folks who are always in the military. It’s a full-time job for them.
The reserve forces are part-time. Traditionally, they serve one weekend a month and two weeks a year doing military training and are available as a reserve force contingency. The reserve force is made up of seven branches. The National Guard has the Army and Air Guards. And the Reserves have a component for each of the armed services — Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines and the Coast Guard. Altogether, the National Guard and Reserves equal about 43 percent of total U.S. military manpower. To give you a sense of how active the Guard and Reserves have been over last decade, they’ve mobilized over 780,000 individuals since 2001. In addition, of total U.S. military fatalities in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2001, about one fifth were from the Guard and Reserves. Many have served, many paid the ultimate sacrifice.
There are a few missions that the Guard and Reserves are particularly well-suited for. What they bring to the table is that because they’re civilians and this is a part-time activity for them, they can apply civilian skills to military roles. So, for example, in Afghanistan or Iraq – both of which encompass post-conflict stabilization operations – you’re in a situation where the U.S. military has to interact with indigenous people, where language and cultural skills are probably more important than fighting skills. You have to build trust, build the local economy, help grow crops, set up law enforcement. Those are critical elements of the missions in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Guard and Reserves are incredibly valuable in those roles. Think about somebody in the Army National Guard who’s also been a cop for 20 years. Who better to teach Afghan people about police training tactics? In areas where cultural, non-traditional military skills are required, the Guard and Reserves are very well-suited to those missions.
Also, any sort of high-tech military operations, particularly those related to cyber security, space operations and electronic communications. Think about a software engineer who works at Google. Maybe like a lot of young people, they’re patriotic and want to serve their country. So, they volunteer and become a member of the Air Force Reserve. They bring their knowledge about software and networks into the development of cyber-security assets. To train regular military personnel to that same level of knowledge would require probably hundreds of thousands of dollars. So, you can get that person at a much lower cost if you bring them out of civilian reserve corps.
Chapman: That speaks to another point in your report. In the introduction, General Gordon Sullivan says that the Guard and Reserves are a “cost-effective” force. Why are they so cost-effective?
Sharp: First of all, the Guard and Reserves are a part-time force — when they’re not mobilized, that is. Again, it’s traditionally one weekend per month, two weeks a year that they’re training. And they only receive military pay for that time. So, you can pay them less than you’d have to pay an active duty force. Moreover, when the Guard and Reserve are not mobilized, they don’t live in military housing. They’re regular civilians, so they have housing like the rest of us do. You save money there.
However, the more you use the Guard and Reserves, the more expensive they become. And we’ve been using them a lot in the past decade, so there’s been resistance to the idea that they’re more cost-effective. I think this is partly due to a lingering cultural bias. We don’t know exactly how much they cost because we’ve never used them that way. In our report, we recommended that the Department of Defense should get going on updating their evaluations and get a better handle on this question, especially in the tight budgetary environment we’re in right now. Having rigorous answers about how much the Guard and Reserves actually cost could be the difference between having a strong force and having Congress cut into that force drastically. But overall, the Guard and Reserves have some solid advantages as far as costs.
Chapman: Where does Guard and Reserve funding come from?
Sharp: The National Guard and Reserve receive the vast majority of their funding through the federal budget, through the Department of Defense. Over the last decade the Department of Defense budget has been divided into two chunks. One is the base budget, sometimes referred to as the peacetime or non-war budget — what we’d be spending even if we weren’t at war. The other large chunk is the Overseas Contingency Operations budget – the war budget, what we’re doing in Iraq and Afghanistan. Up until now, a lot of the funding that’s made the Guard and Reserves more effective has come through that war budget. The problem is that as operations in Iraq are winding down, and are going to begin to do the same in Afghanistan, there’s a chance that the funding for the Guard and Reserves’ effectiveness might be cut instead of being moved into the Department of Defense base budget.
I would say overall that anything that’s in the war budget is considered supplementary and might not be considered as much of an institutionalized part of the U.S. military. So, moving funding from the war budget to that base budget would be an important institutionalization of the National Guard and Reserves, which are an intrinsic part of the military’s future.
Chapman: In the report, you talk about the Guard as being held to a Cold War model. What does that mean?
Sharp: During the Cold War the Guard and Reserves played different role. They were considered to be much more a force in reserve – only intended to be used in case the U.S. found itself in World War III with the Soviet Union. And during that period, certain things served to widen the gap between full-time active duty and reserve forces. For example, President Lyndon Johnson decided not to mobilize the Guard and Reserves in Vietnam, although he was advised to do so. Instead, he relied on the draft to generate manpower.
That created challenges. The first was that some people looking to avoid military service in Vietnam used the Guard service to get out of it. That made active duty folks feel like the Guard wasn’t pulling their weight. That wasn’t the case. It was President Johnson who decided not to mobilize them.
The second challenge was that people who came of age during the war in Vietnam, including many of the top level political and military leaders of today — like General Petraeus who did his dissertation at Princeton on Vietnam — never really got exposure to or familiarity with the Guard and Reserve forces. Consequentially, cultural challenges definitely show up often in Guard and Reserve policy issues. There’s a lingering bias that can be tied to many of those things.
Unfortunately, it’s just not a very accurate way of looking at what’s happening today and over the last ten years. The Guard and Reserve and active duty forces have now served side by side. The challenge now is in educating senior level policy people that, as Joe Biden has said, this not your father’s National Guard.
Chapman: China utilizes their reserve forces differently from the U.S. Can you tell me a little about how they operate?
Sharp: I think the example of China actually shows how Guard and Reserve forces can be a real strategic asset for a nation. China has its active duty and reserve forces trained side by side. It’s increasing funding and training and equipment for their reserve forces. And it also incorporates its reserves directly into strategic planning. China also recruits heavily from civilian industries that could potentially be useful for the military. So, Chinese people who work in the chemical industry and the technology sector have been heavily recruited for the Army because of their skills.
Obviously, all these things potentially pose a threat to us. I don’t think the U.S. should copy the China model, but it should realize that its Guard and Reserves can play a role by using their civilian skills to make our military stronger.
Chapman: So, how do you successfully transition the Guard and Reserves from a strategic “last resort” to more of an operational force?
Sharp: There are three keys. Recruiting people is the first. In recent years, recruiters have felt incredible pressure to meet their quotas. What’s impressive is that the Guard and Reserves have consistently met those quotas over the last decade. And people that join today realize there’s a good chance they’ll serve in conflict. It’s very different than the Cold War era.
The second key is education. One way to get the Guard and Reserves to integrate more fully with active duty forces is to have them educated them side by side. When military personnel go for training, they should be in a classroom next to people from the Guard and Reserves. Our report also recommends a better effort to incorporate Guard and Reserve material into the military curriculum. We need to instruct future military leaders on the structure and operation of the Guard and Reserves so that when they enter a leadership role, they’ll already understand how to best utilize those forces.
Finally, there’s what we call continuum of service. The idea is that it should be easier for military personnel to have a military career that is both flexible and reflective of the 21st century workforce. Rather than have a career in one place for thirty or forty years, most people now expect to work at a company for a few years and then move on. In the military, there’s still this idea that you’re going to go in and work long term. But there could be ways to make service more flexible. Like someone could be on active duty for a few years, then in the Guard or Reserves for a few years, leave and go to grad school, and come back into military later on. It would do a great deal, I think, to make the Guard and Reserves more integrated in the military and result in a more cohesive force – one that’s better trained, better educated and more prepared for the type of conflict operations that the U.S. may face in decades ahead.
Chapman: Who can make those changes?
Sharp: I think it has to be a combination of the Department of Defense and Congress. Historically, Congress has been a very strong, very vocal supporter of the Guard and Reserves, for obvious reasons. They’re a big presence in states and in districts. Members of Congress are always willing to go to bat for their constituents and Guard members tend to play a large role in local communities. They’re fathers, sisters, husbands, daughters. So, Congress has traditionally been good at getting equipment and readiness standards on behalf of the National Guard and Reserves.
But some of the larger policy changes are difficult for Congress. Congress likes to take cues from the Department of Defense when it comes to military issues. It doesn’t like to be in the habit of telling the U.S. military how it should be conducting operations. Generally speaking, the Department of Defense is in a better position to know how the military should be structured and run.
Large policy changes regarding the Guard and Reserves have to come from the Department of Defense in conjunction with Congress. That’s sometimes difficult because of those cultural biases, but there’s a growing recognition in the Department of Defense that some of the things we talked about are important – like making service more flexible and professional military education more accessible. I expect continued progress over the next few years.