Multicomponent Units and the Future of the Army

February 15, 2016

The Army is at a crossroads, and a congressionally mandated commission has just released a major report on which road to take. The commission and its report have been the subject of a great deal of scrutiny at War on the Rocks and elsewhere (Full disclosure: I served as the Chief of Plans on the staff supporting the eight commissioners who wrote the report). Among those who have commented on the report, Lt. Gen. David Barno (ret) and Dr. Nora Bensahel have taken a particularly critical view. Specifically, they criticize the report for failing to offer “concrete suggestions on how to integrate” the three Army components. Contrary to Barno and Bensahel’s claim, 20 percent of the commission’s recommendations (recommendations 26 to 39) offer concrete steps and a clear strategy for “unifying the balkanized cultures of the [Army’s] components.” The recommendations include several important but seemingly mundane fixes including, but going beyond, expanding the use of multicomponent units: expanding authorities to use reserve components, incentivizing cross-component assignments, standardizing deployment timelines, improving recruiting and marketing, and consolidating pay and personnel systems.

Before I get into the meat of this, some basics (most soldiers will be able to skip over this paragraph): The Army consists of three components: the Regular Army (commonly but imprecisely called the active component or active duty Army) and two reserve components (the Army National Guard and Army Reserve). The Regular Army and Army Reserve are federal entities while the Army National Guard forces are state organizations until activated or mobilized for federal missions. Reserve component members often train for 39 days per year (one weekend per month and an annual training exercise) and have full-time civilian jobs. However, there are many exceptions because thousands of reserve component soldiers work full-time as Active Guard and Reserve soldiers; some reserve component soldiers receive more training days to retain unique certifications (e.g. aviators cannot maintain currency with only 39 training days); and some units receive additional days before mobilization or at certain points in the Army’s readiness cycle. Each component has unique units, including approximately 70 in the Regular Army (e.g., aerial exploitation battalions) and another 70 or so in the reserve components (such as the National Guard Ground-Based Midcourse Defense interceptor and Army Reserve biological integrated detection units). Differences in cost, readiness, and mission requirements make the components distinct, and the unique units make them interdependent.

The commission processed a great deal of information regarding multicomponent units (MCUs) — units with personnel from two or more of the components — before coming to any conclusions. This is not a new issue. The Army has over 50 years of mixed results with MCUs; 37 MCUs exist today, which are heavily concentrated in sustainment and support units (e.g., military intelligence). Unfortunately, some past MCU initiatives grew primarily from a desire to maintain force structure with fewer soldiers in the Regular Army instead of an effort to improve mission effectiveness or increase cross-component integration. The commission’s conclusions focused on fixing known problems to improve cross-component integration. MCUs can help when used appropriately based on mission requirements and due consideration of each component’s strengths and weaknesses.

For example, the Congressional Research Service’s 1991 report on the mobilizations of three Army National Guard brigades in 1990, The Army’s Roundout Concept After The Persian Gulf War, highlighted problems with one multicomponent approach called “roundout.” In roundout, one of a Regular Army division’s three brigades was a National Guard brigade that would be activated to bring the division to full strength when needed. Problems identified in the report included inadequate expertise in field maintenance and administration as major training deficiencies of the roundout brigades. Additionally, Regular Army and National Guard equipment, management procedures, and automated information systems were incompatible. Some of these problems remain, although improvements have been made over the last 15 years of conflict. The commission’s recommendations to improve foundational activities (e.g. integrated pay and personnel system, end-to-end review of the Army school system, and the ability to assign Regular Army soldiers to Army National Guard units) address some of the key remaining incompatibility areas.

Making MCUs work effectively today is exceedingly difficult because each component operates independently with different personnel and pay systems, career paths, promotion systems, chains of command, and work schedules. Some differences require fixing (e.g., separate personnel and pay systems) and were identified for reform by the commission. Fixing the cultural, regulatory, and statutory challenges to allow for the unified approach the commission recommended is the first, and most important, step to making MCUs effective.

Based on my personal observations of testimony and background material presented to the commission, Barno and Bensahel’s multicomponent brigade combat teams (BCTs) cannot work effectively without first implementing the commission’s other “One Army” recommendations. Even then, placing units from various components into a multicomponent brigade combat team will probably not work well; other multicomponent approaches offer better prospects. Barno and Bensahel’s model — replacing as many as two-thirds of the Regular Army soldiers in a unit with a variety of reserve component battalions and companies — is more complex than the 1990s division roundout concept — which substituted a single brigade in a Regular Army division with one from the National Guard. We have seen this movie before. A BCT roundout would also be difficult to execute based on the way BCTs are often used for short notice contingencies; other unit types offer a better chance of success. Units with complex, higher-level collective tasks, such as brigade combined arms maneuver, have a much more difficult time integrating organizations that are not on the same training and readiness cycle. Additionally, MCUs often have difficulty responding rapidly to short-notice requirements due to the time necessary to mobilize reserve component elements.

Differences among components occur by design and are what make each distinct, interdependent, and essential. The two reserve components and the Regular Army train on different timelines and are resourced to train to different levels though they have the same standards. Reserve component units also conduct most of their training on weekends and during annual summer training events, which do not easily coincide with the Regular Army’s more year-round training cycles. Separately, Regular Army units receive resourcing to be trained and ready to deploy without significant pre-deployment training. On the other hand, Reserve component units can only be ready to deploy after post-mobilization training due to resourcing. The lower resourcing levels make Reserve component units less expensive but at the cost of lower readiness. The need for post-mobilization training is not due to the quality of soldiers but to the resourced (time and funding) readiness levels provided. However, soldiers who choose to serve in the Army National Guard and Army Reserve do so for personal reasons and cannot maintain their civilian professions if they train full-time like the Regular Army.

The second step in making MCUs effective is developing an approach that takes advantage of each component’s unique features. Initial examination suggests MCUs work best for units with lower collective training requirements, when all units work on the same base, and when units do not adversely affect a component’s institutional structure. In general, BCTs require greater levels of collective training than most other unit types. Reserve component units lack the resourcing to regularly train to the company and battalion level like Regular Army units. Second, co-locating Regular Army sub-units with large Army National Guard elements of a BCT (e.g., a battalion) is difficult because the larger the National Guard element, the more it tends to be spread across a state or states. While the Marine Corps utilizes MCUs, the Marine reserve component is vastly different in structure (no National Guard), unit size, and component size — Army reserve components make up over 50 percent of the Army and are larger than the entire Marine Corps, whereas the Marine Corps Reserve accounts for less than 20 percent of the Corps.

Finally, BCTs are important for the Army National Guard institutional structure because they provide command and control capabilities necessary for homeland missions (e.g., disaster response) as well as operational capabilities and strategic depth for warfighting. Additionally, Army National Guard BCTs enable career progression by creating positions for more senior Army National Guard officers and enlisted soldiers. The components necessarily have unique promotion processes. While promotion standards should be the same across components, reserve component soldiers do and should only compete for promotion against soldiers in their component. Additionally, Army National Guard soldiers must be promoted within their state. In other words, Utah soldiers cannot compete with New York soldiers.

The commissioners provided a slew of concrete recommendations to improve integration between the Army’s three components and to directly assign (vice detail) Regular Army soldiers in reserve component units (recommendations 35 and 36). Providing soldiers with experience working in other components potentially offers the greatest opportunity for improving component integration. Unfortunately, today Regular Army soldiers detailed to Army National Guard units have limits on which missions they are authorized to conduct. For example, a Regular Army soldier detailed to an Army National Guard unit could not deploy with that unit on a state-authorized mission for disaster relief under Title 32.

MCUs are only one way to integrate the components, and the commissioners sensibly treaded lightly on how to execute MCU directives while strongly supporting MCUs in concept and offered some potential ideas for other multicomponent approaches in recommendation 34. MCUs have great potential, but they are difficult to implement, and there are legislative and policy adjustments that must occur to maximize MCU effectiveness. Moreover, MCU approaches should be focused where they are most likely to succeed, such as cyber or military police units likely to benefit from civilian occupations, and with fewer substantial large-unit collective tasks. The more aggressive multicomponent approach advocated by Bensahel and Barno has the potential to create poorly performing MCUs and increase tensions between components; far better to take a more targeted approach.


Benjamin Fernandes is a PhD student at George Mason University, CFR Term Member, and Army Officer. His studies focus on security assistance, principal-agent theory, and grand strategy. He is currently assigned to U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC) and served as the Chief of Plans for the National Commission on the Future of the Army (NCFA). The conclusions and opinions expressed are his own and do not reflect the opinions of the NCFA or the official position of the U.S. government, U.S. Army, or TRADOC.


Photo credit: Spc. Celia Prince, Arizona Army National Guard