Why Unloading Wide Area Security Operations on the Reserve Component Will Not Work


First there was counterinsurgency; then there was Wide Area Security (WAS). And the U.S. Army as an institution hates WAS. There is no glory in conducting presence patrols or building critical infrastructure, particularly after two unsatisfying (and still ongoing) wars that involved a great deal of both to little effect. The Army’s bias against these types of operations is far older than Iraq and Afghanistan, and it has forced the Army to repeatedly relearn these tasks in combat, like a football team learning how to play defense during each game. The U.S. Army War College Carlisle Scholars Program continues the bias against security operations in its Elihu Root study, The Total Army. The study’s recommendations include several that would surely allow the Army to improve itself; in particular, the recommendation to replace Army Service Component Commands with deployable corps headquarters. Yet the study misses the mark with one of its key recommendations regarding WAS.

The study proposes a scheme called “proponency by componency” that would assign the active-duty Army responsibility for combined arms maneuver — think the invasion of Europe in World War II or the 100 hours of ground war in Desert Storm. It would then assign the reserve and National Guard responsibility for WAS, which encompasses everything from counterinsurgency to securing the rear area. The study’s authors, most of them U.S. military officers, claim that this reorganization will maximize the agility of the total Army and preserve proficiency in both combined arms and WAS. This proposal creates a whole host of problems about transitioning from combined arms to WAS and training requirements, and its implementation would place a significant strain on the reserve component, ultimately causing retention issues.


In combat, an Army unit is most vulnerable during transitions between operations, and not understanding that you are in a transition dramatically increases that vulnerability. Under the Root study’s proposal, when would the deployed force be transitioned from combined arms maneuver to WAS? Using Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF) as an example, where would that transition have been? Would it have come after President George W. Bush celebrated the end of major combat operations in May 2003 in front of a banner that read “Mission Accomplished”? That’s generally when combined arms maneuver was considered complete, even though an overwhelming majority of U.S. and Iraqi casualties occurred after that point.

I certainly didn’t feel like combined arms maneuver operations were over as I sat in a foxhole 18 months after Bush’s announcement and watched the Marines assault Fallujah. The combined use of land and air power during that operation reminded me of combat footage I had seen of World War II. Yet under the Root study’s proposal, the active-duty Army would have packed up its gear in 2003 and returned to home station to await the next maneuver battle, leaving the reserve component to pick up the pieces of another almost eight years of combat operations.

Once that transition happened, who would be in charge? The Reserve Component does not have the corps-level headquarters needed to operate as the Joint Task Force (JTF) headquarters. This would either be an active component headquarters comprised of soldiers untrained in WAS, or the reserve component would have to build a corps headquarters itself.

Once the transition occurred, how would the Army transition back to combined arms maneuver when needed? The second battle of Fallujah would be considered a combined arms operation, but took place over a year after combat operations were thought over. Would a force focused on training for WAS be capable of executing that operation? Would an active component force have to be deployed every time a Fallujah-like operation had to be undertaken or stationed on standby in theater in case combined arms maneuver was needed?

The questions arising from this example illustrate that the transition from combined arms maneuver to WAS is not a clear line. The line is even less clear in places like the Ukraine and Syria wherein operations might not start with combined arms maneuver. Under this proposal, the reserve component would also serve as the initial entry force in contingencies such as Bosnia, Kosovo, or even Somalia, where the level of conflict didn’t necessitate combined arms maneuver.

Training and National Guard Math    

The Root study states that the Army has a

cultural preference toward combat arms … and has a tendency to relegate the many essential non-combat task associated with WAS to a lower category of importance than [combined arms maneuver].

By recommending the training focus of “proponency by componency,” the authors reinforce this cultural preference. The Army’s active component wants to break things and blow stuff up; it does not want to deal with messy WAS operations and so passes the responsibility off to the reserve component. The problem with this? According to the chart on page 63 of the study, the overwhelming majority of operations the Army has undertaken since 1898 have been WAS operations. In the 36 operations identified by the chart, the Army spent a combined 36 years in combined arms maneuver-type operations and 635 years in WAS— an almost 18:1 ratio. Take Korea and World War II out of the equation and it’s still a 10:1 ratio, clearly showing the importance of training for WAS operations.

The average reserve component soldier spends only 38 days in uniform a year, with one required weekend of training a month and an additional two weeks every year. Accounting for training preparation and administrative requirements, that same soldier spends less than a month a year actually training on his military skill set. This was referred to by my fellow National Training Center OC/Ts (observer-controller/trainers) and I as “National Guard math.” Whenever a unit came to NTC, we would ask the person we were working with how long they had been in the job. When a National Guard officer would tell me they had been the battalion intelligence officer for three years, I equated that to about 90 days of actual experience.

The lack of training time significantly reduces a reserve component unit’s readiness compared to the active component. This lack of readiness becomes clear when National Guard units come to NTC. On a scale of “crawl, walk, run,” most active component units I saw arrived at a “fast walk to run level,” while most National Guard units that came to NTC were at the “crawl to almost walking level.” This is not a reflection on the type of soldier in the reserve component; They are all great Americans who should be admired for serving their nation. They just do not have the time available to master their craft.

High Demand for Deployment and the Second Skill

One of the key arguments for having the reserve component focus on WAS operations is that these soldiers come equipped with a second skill from civilian life uniquely suited to WAS that active component soldiers do not have. While it’s true that reserve component soldiers possess a second skill that can often be leveraged during a deployment, that second skill comes the civilian jobs of reserve component soldiers. These second jobs are generally their main source of income. Putting the requirement for executing WAS operations on the reserve component will increase the demand for deployments within that component, and this demand will mean a hit in the pocketbook for many soldiers who make more money in their civilian job than on active-duty status.

Most of the reserve component soldiers I knew, myself included, were either never in the active component or had recently left. These two groups were both in the reserve component for the same reason: They wanted to serve their country, just not full-time. They had lives outside of the military; for instance, I was in college and working as a private investigator. The high deployment rate for WAS operations would have put a heavy burden on myself and many of the people I served with in the reserve component. Many would not have been willing to put their lives outside the military continually on hold.

Further, the high deployment demand the focus on WAS creates will make reserve component soldiers less desirable applicants for future employers. What employer is going to want an employee that they know will be frequently gone for a year at a time? Deploying on a regular basis will negate the desirable attributes someone with a military background brings to the civilian job market.  This will have a significant effect on retention, as many soldiers would be forced to choose between serving their country and paying their bills.

Responsibility to Their Home State

The high demand for deployments will also have a significant impact on the National Guard’s primary responsibility: support of their home states. From floods to forest fires, National Guard units are heavily relied upon to provide support during emergencies — this is their primary role. A high deployment tempo conducting WAS operations abroad increases the likelihood that a National Guard unit will not be available to provide support at home. This was the case in 2005 when Hurricane Katrina hit the state of Louisiana, 35 percent of the Louisiana Army National Guard and 40 percent of the Mississippi Army National Guard were deployed in support of operations in Iraq, rendering them unavailable during one of the biggest natural disasters in a generation.


Combat operations transition too quickly and too often for Army units to only be proficient at one type of combat. Relegating Wide Area Security — the type of operation the Army has spent an overwhelming amount of time on the last 125 years — to the reserve component will cause these transitions to become cumbersome and leave both components vulnerable. While the active duty admittedly needs to be re-blued on combined arms maneuver after almost 15 years in Afghanistan and Iraq, it cannot do so at the expense of WAS.


Major James King is a Brigade Senior Intelligence Officer (S2) for a Stryker Brigade Combat Team.  While serving over 20 years in the National Guard, Army Reserve, and Active Army, MAJ King trained both Active and Reserve component units as an Observer/Controller/Trainer at the National Training Center and deployed three times in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom.  The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army or the U.S. government.

Image: Tech. Sgt. Christopher Marasky, U.S. Air Force

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