Repeating the Miracle of ’42: Fixing Army Mobilization


World War II was the last time the United States fully mobilized for war. It is unlikely that the U.S. Army could repeat that feat today. That’s why Brig. Gen. Christopher Petty’s article on the topic of mobilization — the process by which the armed forces are brought to a state of readiness for war — demands our consideration. Brig. Gen. Petty calls for the Army shift from a centralized system of mobilization to a decentralized, state-based model. Doing so, he contends, will make the process of mobilization more cost effective, efficient, and resilient.

As the director for a series of wargames focused on mobilization, I have spent the past year studying these issues. I echo Brig. Gen. Petty’s call to action, but his suggestion to decentralize the mobilization process is insufficient and could even prove counterproductive. The Army should not solve one strategic vulnerability to potentially replace it with another. To improve the Army’s responsiveness to crisis, we must maintain a systems approach to fully understand the complexity and interactions of the entire mobilization enterprise.

There are multiple issues that a mobilizing Army will face, including individual and unit readiness levels, training capacities, transportation scheduling, and strategic lift throughput. Addressing these issues individually without regard to the entire system will likely make the mobilization system less effective and efficient. Improvements at the system level, particularly focused on readiness, delivery time, and resources expended, provide better measurements of the overall performance of the Army’s current system. Decentralizing mobilization might reduce the amount of time a reserve component unit spends on post-mobilization tasks. However, doing so may not improve that unit’s delivery time to the combatant commander. That is why we have to think holistically.

As Brig. Gen. Petty points out, mobilization alone is not the objective, but rather the ability to project power across either the Atlantic or Pacific oceans. A rapid mobilization could easily outpace strategic lift capabilities and lead to the same frustrations Brig. Gen. Petty experienced as he took his unit to war in 2006. Even if a decentralized mobilization process is able to more quickly deliver a unit to theater, it may not be the wisest choice. Deployment timelines must be carefully supervised to properly sequence force capabilities and manage operational risks.

Improving mobilization may be the key to military success in future operations. Indeed, history shows nations able to quickly mobilize can better defend themselves, but a quick mobilization is neither a guarantee nor a necessity for success. For example, Israel’s successful mobilization during the 1973 Arab-Israeli War saved that nation and allowed it to prevail. France was also able to rapidly mobilize when it declared war on Germany 1939 but failed to act decisively. France was poorly prepared to defend itself and quickly sued for an armistice after the German offensive in 1940. Alternately, America’s success during this war was rooted in its ability to conduct a total mobilization over a longer period of time, tapping into a vast industrial base necessary to sustain a large fighting force over long lines of communication.

Before we proceed on reforming the Army mobilization system, we must first fully understand the strategic environment in which the United States will mobilize. The crisis du jour will inform whether the U.S. Army must deploy quickly or be able to expand for the long haul. This problem will not be solved at the state level, and it cannot be resolved quickly at the national level.

In calling for decentralization, Brig. Gen. Petty assumes the Army will always mobilize at his 2006 deployment pace or even at the pace of the current steady state processes. But the character of the conflict the United States will next find itself in will likely change many of the authorities, policies, and processes that govern mobilization. The Army needs to think more deeply today about the potential challenges the nation will face during a mobilization tomorrow, but the analysis should go beyond physical security vulnerabilities to include detailed analysis that addresses threats and challenges both internally and externally generated. From this analysis the Army can develop a plan that codifies how it will operate when mobilizing.

The principles of mission command, conducting military operations through decentralizing execution, and enabling subordinates’ initiative, supports Brig. Gen. Petty’s recommendation. Decentralized execution with mission-type orders within the commander’s intent could speed the mobilization process and achieve unity of effort. But which command acts as the command? The current mobilization enterprise weaves a complicated web of supported and supporting commanders among multiple commands, including Forces Command, Medical Command, Transportation Command, and others. A centralized command, able to issue mission-type orders informed by reliable processes and systems, would endeavor to be responsive to the needs of the Combatant Commander, the Army Staff, and the National Command Authority.

Recent wargames at the U.S. Army War College have sought to fully understand the complexities of mobilization and to quantify how quickly the Army can mobilize. Through cooperation with other defense organizations and commands, the War College can test the Army’s ability to meet the demands of an operations plan, and then progressively expand to scenarios that require the total force in a full mobilization. The ultimate goal is to develop and test what will become the Army’s digital mobilization proving ground, enabling Army leaders to quickly assess the impacts of implementing recommendations like Brig. Gen. Petty’s. Quantifying how rapidly the Army can mobilize for each of these contingency levels will support resource discussions, without which there is little chance of improving mobilization processes.

Despite my mild disagreements, I count Brig. Gen. Petty as an ally in the quest to improve the Army’s mobilization enterprise. His ideas, along with numerous others across the community are critical to developing and analyzing mobilization decisions. No logical person wants to subject units to needless waiting and duplicative processes, especially when a delay could affect the outcome of the war. The Army must take a holistic systems approach to achieve real improvement inside the mobilization enterprise.


Col. Ken S. Gilliam is the Director of Strategic Assessments and Operations Research within the Department of Strategic Wargaming at the U.S. Army War College. He is a former Assistant Professor in the Department of Systems Engineering at the United States Military Academy and earned Master’s Degrees in Operations Research and Strategic Studies. The opinions and views expressed here are his own and do not represent those of the U.S. Army War College, the Department of the Army, the Department of Defense, or any part of the U.S. government.

Image: U.S. Army Photo, Maj. Randall Stillinger