Through more than a decade of war, the Active and Reserve components of the military have operated as a single, integrated fighting force. The Reserves were deployed in rotations alongside Active units. So good did the former become that Reserve commanders and headquarters were put in charge of major portions of the Iraq battlefield, commanding Active units as well as their own Reserve formations. The Air National Guard continued its excellent service to the nation conducting both combat and support missions in Iraq and Afghanistan. So effective had the Reserve component become that it was awarded a seat among the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
But as the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan have wound down, old arguments and enmities have resurfaced. Two years ago, the Air National Guard and the Active Air Force nearly came to blows over proposals by the service Secretary and the then Chief of Staff to make relatively small cuts in Air Guard personnel and retire a few hundred old aircraft. Last year the fight renewed over the proposal by the current Chief of Staff to retire the fleet of A-10s, which reside almost exclusively in the Guard. Recently, the Army National Guard has been vociferously protesting the Army’s proposal to move all the AH-64 Apache helicopters into the Active force.
At the heart of the growing troubles between the Active and Reserve components is a single issue: the need to maintain a capable and responsive force at an affordable price. Reservists like to point out that they are much less expensive than active duty personnel and formations This is true, but only so long as they remain in reserve status and are not mobilized. Once reservists are activated they are as expensive as their active duty brethren, possibly even more so because of the need to give them additional mobilization and demobilization time and extra training. Specialized units with complex and hard to maintain and operate equipment and platforms require more time for training than can be accomplished in the limited annual duty time available for the Reserves.
Declining defense budgets require very difficult choices. One of these is how to manage the two components. If we believe that the United States will not have much use for military forces in the coming years, the Pentagon could move much more of its capabilities into the Reserves. However, if we foresee a world of rapidly emerging and unpredictable threats, a robust Active duty component must be maintained.
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