Beyond the Army Commission: Unifying the Army’s Components


On January 28, the congressionally mandated National Commission on the Future of the Army released its much-anticipated report. It weighs in at about 200 pages and offers 63 recommendations that range from the size of Army endstrength (about right) to the amount of artillery and watercraft (need more). The commission took its task seriously, and the report is generating many important discussions. But in one vital area, the commissioners fell short — offering concrete suggestions on how to integrate the active Army, the Army Reserve, and the Army National Guard into a truly unified force, especially through multicomponent units.

The report gets many important things right. It validates the essential role played by the Army Guard and Reserve and suggests they be used more routinely for predictable overseas deployments. It rightly attacks the wide range of budgetary and management challenges that stand in the way of fully utilizing the Guard and Reserve. It recommends changing authorities to facilitate current-year funding so the reserve components can be accessed with shorter notice, and it argues for more training and readiness dollars. It wisely suggests unifying the separate personnel systems maintained by each of the three components. Perhaps most strikingly, it recommends keeping some Apache attack helicopters in the National Guard, effectively reversing the last Army chief of staff’s ill-advised decision to put all of this key combat capability in the active force.

But the commission offered few practical strategies to address the Army’s biggest challenge: unifying the balkanized cultures of its components. The deep divide between the active Army and the National Guard was the main reason that Congress created the commission in the first place. Deep fissures have riven the active and reserve components ever since the end of major wartime commitments in Iraq and Afghanistan reduced reliance on the Guard and Reserve for ongoing combat operations. Shrinking funds have also strained ties, causing the active component to elbow scheduled Guard units out of the way and take over long-planned deployments to Kosovo, the Sinai Peninsula, and the Horn of Africa in 2013. The report explicitly calls on Army senior leaders to “eliminate this unhelpful bickering” among the Army components that “adversely impacts the Army’s mission.”

Yet the report does not go nearly far enough in recommending ways to do so, especially when it comes to multicomponent units that include personnel from the active Army, the Army Reserve, and the Army National Guard. The report stresses the value of such units, stating that they “represent one of the best ways to develop one Army, especially if members of the units can train together in peacetime and, if necessary, fight together in war. The commission therefore urges the Army to continue creating and sustaining multicomponent units.” Yet their recommendations in this area focus primarily on improving personnel and management systems to facilitate service across components. Those changes are certainly necessary, but they are not nearly sufficient to push the Army forward, especially given strong cultural resistance to further integration within the active Army. While the report does discuss the broader issue of multicomponent units, its sole concrete, operational recommendation is timid at best: a single pilot program for a multicomponent aviation brigade. Nestled among 62 other recommendations, this program would affect fewer than 2,000 soldiers in a force of nearly one million. Its impact on the much bigger issue of breaking down cultural barriers between components would be largely inconsequential.

The Army needs to take a much more aggressive approach to forming multicomponent units, especially in its premier brigade combat teams (BCTs). These front-line units, organized into infantry, armored or motorized formations, form the centerpiece of the Army’s warfighting capabilities. They epitomize the war-winning mission of the service and symbolically represent the heart of the Army’s culture. The commission failed to suggest integrating any of these units, missing a crucial opportunity to push the Army to test the multicomponent concept in the most visible and arguably most important part of the force. Having active Army soldiers work with their National Guard and Reserve counterparts every day in these operational units would be the most powerful way to unify the three fractious tribes of today’s Army into one force, while also enhancing both readiness and capabilities. Working together daily with a shared focus on the mission at hand dispels stereotypes and builds trust. That trust was common during deployments at the height of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. It is markedly absent today.

The commission provides an unrelated recommendation that offers the ideal place for such a test. It proposes that the Army cut two infantry BCTs and use the personnel spaces saved to build capacity in air defense, field artillery, and chemical/biological/radiological/nuclear defense. Yet the Army could keep those BCTs on the rolls by converting them (and perhaps others) to multicomponent BCTs. This model, which we have written about before, would entail adding National Guard combat battalions (infantry, field artillery) and Army Reserve companies (signal, intelligence, military police) to a BCT. The BCT would have an active duty headquarters (with some reserve augmentation) and retain one or two of its active combat battalions and companies. The BCT could replace as many as two-thirds of its active duty billets with reserve component units and soldiers, and those newly freed active personnel could then be used to build the new units that the commission recommends.

The benefits of such an entirely new model are substantial. The readiness and training of these units would be greatly enhanced above current reserve-only formations, given the presence and expertise of far greater numbers of active duty soldiers. These higher-readiness blended units would be more rapidly available for combat than most current National Guard and Reserve formations, yet would cost substantially less than a full-time active duty BCT. An Army organized with more of these multicomponent brigades could preserve important fighting capabilities while stretching scarce dollars, since reserve troops in drill status cost much less than their active duty counterparts. In the face of looming budget cuts that could remove several more BCTs from the active Army, this model would preserve current force structure and combat capability, while simultaneously delivering units with higher readiness and availability than nearly any of today’s reserve component BCTs.

Despite this shortcoming, the commission’s emphasis on unifying the Army culture is extremely important and provides needed external support for those within the Army who are trying to do so. The most important advocate is Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Milley, who has made mending rifts among the three components one of his highest priorities since taking office in August 2015. Milley has already done more in his first six months to build unity and spread goodwill across his force than his contentious predecessor did in four years. As we have written, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh faced many of the same challenges when he took office in 2012. Milley has taken a page from Welsh’s playbook and is personally reaching out to the Guard and Reserve, putting two National Guard generals on his transition team and castigating anyone who identifies the Army as having 490,000 soldiers instead the total force of 980,000 soldiers in all three components. His exact words: “Every time I hear the word … ‘490,’ I jump through the ceiling. If I hear the words ‘10 divisions,’ I lose my mind.”

The National Guard is responding in kind. Retired Maj. Gen. Gus Hargett, who serves as the president of the National Guard Association of the United States, described Milley as “very refreshing,” “open,” and “honest.” Perhaps the best testament to Milley’s success comes from the adjutant general of California, Maj. Gen. David Baldwin, who told us: “During the first 29 or 30 years of my career, when people asked me what I did, I said, ‘I’m in the Army.’ In the last two to three years, I started saying, ‘I’m in the National Guard.’ But in the last few months [since Milley took office], I’ve started saying, ‘I’m in the Army’ again.”

The commission performed an important service for the nation in taking a holistic look at the full range of challenges facing America’s Army. Many of its ideas have serious merit, well beyond its ideas on improving active, Guard, and Reserve relationships. Now it is up to the Army’s military and civilian senior leadership — and the U.S. Congress — to break down the barriers among the Army’s warring components and reshape them into One Army again. That will take strong leadership in the Pentagon, on the Hill, and in the field, not simply reports, recommendations, and rhetoric. The nation plainly must have an Army of unified components acting as a single team in order to maximize its ability to win wars on land. The commission has helped set the stage for that to happen — now it’s time for action.


Lt. General David W. Barno, USA (Ret.) is a Distinguished Practitioner in Residence, and Dr. Nora Bensahel is a Distinguished Scholar in Residence, at the School of International Service at American University. Both also serve as Nonresident Senior Fellows at the Atlantic Council. Their column appears in War on the Rocks every other Tuesday. To sign up for Barno and Bensahel’s Strategic Outpost newsletter, where you can track their articles as well as their public events, click here.


Photo credit: U.S. Army