The Power of Independent Thinking


Stay Connected
Get the latest updates straight to your inbox.


Relying on Backup
Keep Reserves Out of Unnecessary Operations

The major conclusion of the independent Commission on the National Guard and Reserves (CNGR), officially terminated in April, was that the Guard and Reserves were no longer a strategic reserve force to be surged in response to a major war, as might have been the case during the Cold War if the Soviet Union invaded Western Europe. Instead, it had become an operational reserve, and therefore should be incorporated into the total U.S. military force structure rather than being treated separately.

Because much greater demand has been placed on the Guard and Reserve in the current wars, this situation has now become an accepted reality. But instead of figuring out the best way to meet those demands, the larger question is, should we be making those demands to begin with?

The CNGR, created by Congress to recommend how to shape the Guard and Reserves to meet U.S. national security requirements, says that given the threats the United States faces at home and abroad, the looming fiscal challenges, the projected demands for forces, the unique capabilities resident in the reserve components and their cost-effectiveness, the commission sees no reasonable alternative to an increased use of and reliance on the reserve components.

Indeed, Operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom have resulted in more Guard and Reserve soldiers being called to duty than were cumulatively mobilized since the Cuban missile crisis (including the Vietnam War, the Cuban refugee crisis, Haiti, Bosnia, Kosovo and Operation Desert Storm). Currently, nearly 100,000 guardsmen and reservists are mobilized, and as much as 40 percent of the force in Iraq has been composed of the Guard and Reserve.

Because the CNGR assumed that the demands being placed on the National Guard and Reserves were a given, their recommendations were about making changes to meet those demands.

But the more fundamental question was not addressed: Are all the different military operations that require using the Guard and Reserves necessary for U.S. national security?

Since the end of the Cold War, the United States has employed significant military force on nine occasions: the 1989 invasion of Panama and arrest of Manuel Noriega (27,000 U.S. troops); Operation Desert Storm to force Iraq out of Kuwait (more than 500,000 U.S. military personnel); the ill-fated mission in Somalia (25,000 U.S. troops); Haiti in 1994 to restore ousted President Jean-Bertrand Aristide to power and to head off a potential wave of Haitian refugees; airstrikes in Bosnia in 1995; missile attacks against Sudan and Afghanistan in retaliation for the bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania (but accused by critics of the Clinton administration as a distraction from the Monica Lewinsky scandal and impeachment hearings); more air strikes in Kosovo in 1999 against the Hitler du jour, former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic; Operation Enduring Freedom; and Operation Iraqi Freedom.

However, only one of them was unambiguously in response to a direct threat to the United States: Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan, after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

Even beyond the current operations in Afghanistan and Iraq that are requiring a substantial Guard/Reserve component, there are several hundred thousand other U.S. military personnel deployed around the world that task the Guard and Reserves.

But like profligate U.S. military interventions, virtually all of these commitments are unnecessary for U.S. security. For example, why does the United States need to station troops in Europe to defend against a nonexistent Warsaw Pact threat? Ultimately, the commission treated the symptoms rather than dealing with the cause of the disease. Unfortunately, this is a malaise that plagues most commissions.

Even the Sept. 11 commission recognized the problem of U.S. foreign policy in motivating terrorism. But rather than prescribing a change in policy, the Sept. 11 commission concluded: “That does not mean U.S. choices have been wrong. It means these choices must be integrated with America’s message of opportunity to the Arab and Muslim.”

But good solutions to the wrong problem don’t fix the problem. And they could make the problem worse. Indeed, that is likely to be the case with the CNGR recommendations.

Transforming the Guard and Reserve into an operational reserve only makes it easier for policy-makers to engage in unnecessary military interventions, which is a double whammy that not only wears out the military but makes us less safe by fueling the growing tide of anti-American sentiment, particularly in the Islamic world.

Charles Peña is former Senior Fellow at the Independent Institute as well as a Senior Fellow with Defense Priorities and Coalition for a Realistic Foreign Policy, former Senior Fellow with the George Washington University Homeland Security Policy Institute, and an Adviser on the Straus Military Reform Project.