Mobilization: The Army’s Achilles’ Heel

April 18, 2017

I knew we had a problem in 2006. That was the year I took a battalion through the mobilization process on the way to war in Iraq. The 2-135th Aviation Battalion, with our six hundred citizen-soldiers, from different states, moved to Ft. Hood to answer the nation’s call. Our flight crews were manned and well-trained. Our battalion staff was proficient. Yet, we ended up away from our jobs and families, sitting and waiting patiently at Fort Hood for six months. Some of the time was spent setting up our battalion with its unique airfield and maintenance requirements. We also went through training we had already done. Much of the time we sat around waiting to use ranges and other training facilities that we had to share with others. My soldiers also received equipment, such as new radios and mounts for vehicles that we would end up sending home.  This story isn’t just about frustrated soldiers. It’s also about how a nation that invested in such an incredible warfighting capability faced a needless six-month delay in employing it.  It didn’t change the outcome of the war, but it was more than an inconvenience: It was a symptom of a strategic problem that the United States needs to tackle because next time the stakes might be higher.

In simple terms, Army mobilization is the process of getting units in the reserve component appropriately assembled, equipped, trained, and sent off to war. Our nation has done this successfully since its inception. State militias have been called into service from the Revolutionary War all the way up to the wars of today. Mobilization was a critical component of the unprecedented expansion of the U.S. Army for World War II, in which it grew from 187,000 to 8.2 million men in less than six years.  But with the end of the Cold War, and the luxury of facing an enemy almost entirely on our own terms, things have changed. Over the last 16 years, the mobilization process has been allowed to not only atrophy, but also to become increasingly vulnerable to future disruption. The time has come for the Army to redesign the process to ensure it can provide large numbers of forces in a timely and effective manner for future conflicts.

To understand the need, it’s important to understand history. Despite the allure of grand maneuver and decisive battles, a stubborn fact remains: Nation state-warfare is mostly an exercise in national attrition. The nation that can mobilize its forces and better bring them to bear on the enemy over time, usually prevails. It has been true since the Peloponnesian Wars, through both world wars, and it will continue to be true for future wars.  This sobering reality dictates a strategic imperative: The Army must be prepared to quickly mobilize large numbers of units in a short period of time, get them across the Atlantic or Pacific, and get them into the fight.  The fact that over 50 percent of the Army currently resides in the reserve component makes this all the more urgent. Yet the Army, with budget pressures and 16 years of mostly predictable deployment schedules, has actually seen this capacity diminished.

There have been some signs of progress. U.S. Forces Command (FORSCOM) and its subordinate, 1st Army “own” mobilization for the Army. Through their “Bold Shift” initiative, they have focused more effort on working with reserve units at their home stations. This is already reducing the training time required for units when they mobilize. In addition, the Army is identifying those units required to mobilize in the first 60 days of a war and trying to resource them with extra training days. These are good first steps, but they don’t go far enough. Not only will tomorrow’s enemies fail to cooperate with America’s war plans, but the United States also has a poor track record for predicting the character of its next wars. To be prepared for that unknown, the Army needs to reimagine mobilization. It needs a more distributed system that can generate forces faster, more efficiently, and with fewer vulnerabilities.  It’s time to push mobilization to the states.

The current process is based on a centralized model, in which the Army plans to push hundreds of units, hundreds of thousands of soldiers and millions of pieces of equipment through a few central locations, such as Ft. Hood and Ft. Bliss, before they go to war.  Reserve units are required to assemble and process in their home state send their equipment and people across the country to one of these central military bases, and then do it all over again. Even though the units receive some valuable additional training, much of it is duplicated, could be accomplished at home station, and comes at too great a cost. These costs are measured in time and resources. And they demand the Army accepts too much risk.

The overhead cost of 1st Army alone is some 8,000 soldiers and civilians dedicated to mobilization. And this does not include the overhead expenses required to run the mobilization mission at those centralized bases. And of course, in a centralized system it won’t take America’s enemies long to figure out ways to shut down or disrupt those strategic chokepoints and interfere with our ability to generate forces.

Central models are costly, slow, and vulnerable to disruption. To make the system more cost effective, efficient, and resilient, the Army should continue the momentum of the “Bold Shift” initiative, but take it further by fully distributing the process to the states. Most of the required capabilities are already there: training ranges, railheads, personnel and pay processing, and equipment issuing facilities to name a few. In fact, one study of a National Guard unit mobilizing directly to Bosnia in 1996 concluded that not only could the states handle the tasks, but that it saved time.

This kind of change will not come easy, but we owe it to the nation to explore it. Reserve units will probably have to rely more heavily on regional commands or partnering agreements with state National Guard headquarters. Reserve unit premobilization training and equipment movement plans will have to be more detailed and fully inclusive of assigned units outside their states. The 1st Army will have to find ways to task organize to support each state with a more robust mobilization cell or advisor group. Annual baseline certification requirements will almost certainly have to be redefined, probably at a higher level. And of course, resources and people may very well have to shift from some military bases or certain headquarters, to create more capability in the distributed nodes of the new system.  This would be a big change but it is all in the realm of the possible.

History has continued to show the importance of a nation’s capacity to generate forces and get them to the fight.  Centralized systems, by their very nature, are less responsive, less agile, and more vulnerable to disruption. It’s time to change. It’s time to push the “Bold Shift” initiative to its logical next step — a fully distributed system in the states.  If the Army can do this, it will solve one strategic vulnerability that’s too important to ignore.


Brig. Gen. Christopher Petty is a Colorado Guardsmen currently serving at U.S. Northern Command in Colorado Springs. He has commanded at various levels, from a battalion in combat during the Iraq “surge,” to a NATO headquarters supporting stability and institutional defense reform overseas. He has also served in the Pentagon as the Deputy Director of Operations for the Army G-3/5/7. His opinions are his own and do not represent the views of the Colorado National Guard, U.S. Northern Command, the U.S. Army, or the Department of Defense.

Image: Staff Sgt. Scott Raymond