All Sane Men Believe in Reserves


The Navy Reserve has a proud history of wartime service, counting in their ranks six U.S. presidents. It has recently demonstrated superior performance in a wide range of joint billets but few navy billets. Since the attacks of September 2001, navy reservists have made the ultimate sacrifice alongside their active duty counterparts. Of the 48,000 officers and enlisted in the Navy Reserve, more than 3,000 are currently mobilized as of this writing and the overwhelming majority have been previously mobilized around the world but very few on ships, submarines, or aircraft. Navy reservists are now sailors largely in name only. While reservists voluntarily or involuntary mobilize, the Navy Reserve has lost its way culturally. In the post-9/11 world, navy reservists are not “forged by the sea,” their heritage and mission has instead been hijacked by seemingly endless land wars. The Navy Reserve’s non-naval role has diminished it culturally and professionally with regard to naval warfighting. Perhaps the Navy Reserve has simply outlived the mission for which it was specifically created.

Readers, particularly those in reserve leadership, may react indignantly at the impertinence of simply asking the question, daring to challenge a century-old organization. But it is not a new question and it is not a new challenge — especially by officers in the pages of Navy’s publication of record. Consider just a few article titles by officers through the past century:

It is appropriate, and it is time, nearly 18 years into the War on Terror, to ask those questions again. It is time to think about the Navy Reserve and future challenges.

Beginning in the late 19th century, officers advocated for a navy reserve. In 1888, Capt. Augustus Cooke wrote of the nation’s role in the “great ocean highways” requiring the active duty navy be augmented by “a Naval Reserve [that] involves both ships and men.” Three decades later, the Naval Reserve was established on March 3, 1915. This had an immediate impact when the United States entered the World War 1. The force and intent of the legislation was necessarily fine-tuned in subsequent decades. In 1921, a navy board met to make the reserve more efficient. The Naval Reserve Act of 1938 officially established it as a component of the Navy.

Throughout the 20th century, officers reevaluated the role and missions of the Navy Reserve. In the interwar period, officers recognized the value of a reserve during wartime but such reserves needed to prepare for possible war during times of peace. In 1924, one officer argued for an “immediately available sufficient trained officers and men to bring our ships in commission up to fighting strength, to man the ships out of commission.”  The mission of the Naval Reserve was to provide, train, and organize an effective force, and, together with the regular Navy, to man and operate the fleet and aviation units. There was no question about its need. As another put it, “all sane men believe in reserves.” The service would realize, one officer prophesied, that its war strength would come from the reserves.

Within two decades, World War II witnessed the largest ramp up of naval forces due to the availability of the reserves. By war’s end, reservists commanded 90 percent of destroyer escorts, mine craft, and oilers, as well as more than ten percent of submarines and destroyers. In all, navy reservists comprised 90 percent of the Navy personnel during the war. Active and reserves were, an officer wrote, “not in competition with each other at any time but complementary and supplementary to each other … both were members of the same team.” It was a navy reserve where men could “man their stations on board ship and function promptly upon mobilization.” Reserves during total war were indistinguishable from their active counterparts.

At the height of the Cold War, officers again challenged the necessity of the Navy Reserve and began to be critical of it. “The reserve ought to have a limited number of elite units fully manned and combat ready,” according to one officer. The nature of war — particularly a nuclear threat — made others question the reserve’s utility. In the defense drawdown of the 1990s, the reserve was a target of opportunity, particularly its infrastructure: “our national network of more than 200 Naval Reserve Readiness Centers gives the illusion of a strong Naval Reserve organization. But these archaic brick buildings no longer have a mission that justifies their enormous cost” and that the emphasis of officers was simply on gaining command. Citing the chief of Naval Reserve, the authors reiterated that the purpose of the Naval Reserve is to “provide trained personnel when required for mobilization and to provide substantial contributory support to the active Navy.” In 2003, naval reserve officers argued that “the Naval Reserve’s two missions — mobilization readiness for war and contributory support in peacetime — were concocted largely by Commander, Naval Reserve Force, to justify the separate existence of the Naval Reserve, in particular the attendant bureaucracy through six echelons of command.” But the reserves also had advocates who wrote that “they do more than the active Navy realizes. They do more than Congress appreciates. They do a lot. But the Naval Reserve has the capacity to do more.” It simply had to tell its story. The story, however, has changed.

Everything changed with 9/11 — particularly the mission of the Navy Reserve and how it mobilized. Two admirals recognized that the “reserve component experienced a ‘mission creep’ by accepting roles not originally envisioned for reserve forces” when reflecting upon then-Chief of Naval Operations Vern Clark’s direction of a zero-based review studying gaps in active capabilities that should be filled by reserves. The additional “mission creep” they referred to was a joint orientation of the reserves. Goldwater-Nichols demanded jointness; the Global War on Terror imposed Navy Reserve gruntification. The Navy Reserve had changed its mission “to deliver strategic depth and operational capability to the Navy, Marine Corps, and Joint Forces.” And there’s the rub — navy reservists are far more likely not to serve at sea as they were intended to do, but in ground billets requiring no unique or specific navy skills. “In many instances, reservists are filling more deployed billets than their active counterparts.” Despite this, even the Congressional National Guard and Reserve Components Caucus believes the USNR’s mission is to “provide mission-capable units and individuals to the Navy, Marine Corps Team throughout the full range of operations from peace to war.” No mention of jointness.

Soon after the Afghanistan and Iraq Wars started, then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld stated that “you go to the war with the army you have — not the army you might want or wish to have.” That was true of the military as a whole. That is why the Navy Reserve has become the go-to “army-lite” source to fill joint billets rather than its long-time role in supporting the navy to support platformed units.

The Air Force reevaluated its mobilization process for wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as it was providing personnel “in situations in which the traditional force provider [the army] does not have the capacity to satisfy a force capability.One report argued [In Lieu Of] solutions did “more harm than good, creating an illusion of adaptation that obscures the nature and scope of the problem.” The Air Force reported to the House Armed Services Committee that there was a growing cost to “in lieu of” tasks outside of core competencies that impacted overall readiness. The Navy witness, Adm. Tim Giardina, reported that the Chief of Naval Operations “offered his continued support as long as the conflict goes to where Navy can help out in the ground-centric areas.” Additional testimony admitted that 20 percent of Navy individual augmentees were drawn from those on sea duty, but that the use of individual augmentees had no impact on operational readiness, but no justification or report supporting this statement was provided. The Subcommittee chair stated his concern on the “strain of readiness” in taking military personnel out of their core service roles.

Navy Reservists unhesitatingly stepped up in a time of war after 9/11 regardless of the billets but many were initially associated with their communities — medical, intelligence, engineering, and so on and so forth. The wars required it to fill many land component-specific billets that were, in reality, army missions or did not require navy training and experience. Two communities were particularly affected.

More than 2,000 surface warfare officers have been mobilized since 9/11. The overwhelmingly majority have been sent to joint billets or navy shore billets in the Horn of Africa (200+), Iraq (100+), Afghanistan (260+), Bahrain (160+), Millington, Fleet Forces Command and Kuwait. The one significant deviation from that are those affiliated with riverine squadrons where more than ten percent of the surface warfare officers trained and deployed as a unit. Reserve surface warfare officer opportunities may be changing with the Reserve Component to Sea that now sends reservists to sea for 181 to 365 days to address afloat manning gaps, a necessary and welcomed step forward if those reservists are capable and vetted.



Suboptimal manning is also true with the Naval Information Reserve which provided nearly 2,000 full-time positions for operational support in fiscal year 2017, alone according to its annual report. This contribution was a 7.3 percent increase over FY16 and a 17 percent increase over FY15. In FY17, Naval Information Force Reserve sourced 80 percent of all the Navy’s Information Warfare Individual Augmentee requirements. In FY17, it averaged 500 sailors mobilized (representing about eight percent of the total force). Although 73 percent were billets that ostensibly supported Navy commands, most were mobilized to joint billets. There were also no identifiable mobilizations to Pacific Command despite the growing presence of the Chinese navy in those waters (they were instead funded through shorter-term Active Duty for Training and Active Duty for Special Work orders that do not absolve reservists from mobilization orders).

Like the riverine squadrons, however, there are some units that train and deploy together such as Electronic Attack Squadron VAQ-209 or VP-69 which are available on notice for both short or long mobilizations. Absent unit mobilizations, however, the Department of Defense has relied on Individual Augmentee billets to fill positions globally.

Since 9/11 reservists rightfully expect to mobilize and do so to serve the country and fulfill the obligations they accepted when they joined. The conditions which makes one ready to mobilize for most billets, however, are a medical screening and completing online training courses (few of which are related to the specific work assigned).  There is little correlation between job knowledge, skills, and expertise when a reservist is mobilized to a billet. Often it is simply a matter of a body filling a position regardless of the individual’s background. Once in theatre, it is even less likely that the reservist will do the work on the orders as the needs of the command have changed without changing the billet description.

Seventeen years of army environments in “Navy” working uniforms (digital cammies), promotions stressing joint (in reality army) mobilized billets and Joint Professional Military Education, has left the Navy Reserve largely culturally and professionally deficient with regard to maritime operations. We pay lip service to the navy’s history, mission, and needs when most reservists will never serve on a ship, submarine, or aircraft; many — if those I have served with as a drilling or mobilized reservist are an indication — have never or rarely even been aboard one of those platforms. This is not their fault. In 1938, a young officer saw a problem: “Reservists are unfamiliar with ships, but ship personnel are unfamiliar with reserves.” What is new is old. The Navy Reserve’s mission has de facto become to prepare for any Army requirements, a far cry from its original intent, but necessitated by the need to fill positions in the War on Terror, particularly since it is unlikely that a primarily naval war would necessitate the mobilization of Army or Air Force personnel. Jointness is a one-way street.

Under Article I Section 8 of the U.S. Constitution, Congress, not the Navy Reserve or the active Navy, provides, supports, and maintains military forces and makes rules for their government and regulations. It is Congress that created the Navy Reserve, modified it, and funds it. Congress can fix it fiscally; the Pentagon can change it culturally. Congress could simply transfer most of the Navy Reserve billets that have supported land operations to the Army in a mass lateral transfer move, with the exception of some platform-based units or specialties such as the Medical Corps. Or it could go back to the beginning in order to better realign the Navy Reserve with possible future maritime missions and operations.

The Navy Reserve is no longer a platform-oriented component of the Navy. Certainly, the reserve aviation squadrons will continue to fill mission gaps, but unlike World War II, in a new naval conflict, reserve officers will no longer rise to command submarines or surface combatants. “The next war might be too short to get them in time and cause more problems than they solve,” wrote a commodore three decades ago. While prophets of short wars have often been proved wrong, a naval conflict is more likely to be technologically overwhelming; if it is with China that the United States does battle, the former is building a far larger fleet than the latter. Reserve officers will not have sufficient time to properly train for what ships remain and there are no longer reserve ships that are manned by solely by reservists. The latter option was discontinued, absent a financial commitment by Congress or a demand from the surface warfare leadership. Funding reserve ships only squandered limited resources that could be directed to more immediate needs.

The Navy Reserve could be made more relevant to the Navy by considering three broad tactical changes.

First, the various orders to duty could be reviewed. Navy reservists fill mobilization billet and are move up on a list based on the last time they mobilized. However there are other types of orders such as Active Duty for Special Work. Theoretically, a reservist who volunteers for Active Duty for Special Work on a ship in the Persian Gulf could be flown back to the United States to be mobilized for any billet including those in the continental United States. A simple standardization of orders would resolve this to determine if the individual served in an operational billet out of the country.

Second, the individual augmenttee program could be modified to require more reservists to mobilize with their gaining commands rather than for ad hoc or outdated requirements better suited to the Navy. If reservists have not mobilized to their gaining command, then the Navy must question a structure where they are only used elsewhere. What are their real contributions to a gaining command if they are not relevant enough to be mobilized there? International maritime partnership units, Riverine Squadrons, VAQ-209 and other units may provide the way forward in shifting the focus from staff positions to operational niches. Experienced reserve surface warfare officers, for example, could be assigned to ships to train junior officers, stand the watch, and relieve issues of fatigue on decks.

Third, specific functions could be identified that could be filled by a navy reserve unit that is not being addressed by the active community because of resources. Such units already exist and can be used a precedent or model. The Navy could, for example, reestablish the Navy Irregular Warfare Office as a reserve-specific organization with experienced navy reservists on short- and long-term orders. Empower them to work with on how to address the twenty-first challenges such as how to counter China’s maritime militias. Allow it to work with early, non-deployable Littoral Combat Ships and other platforms.

The past 17 years have trained navy reservists for the new global realities of small wars, land wars, irregular warfare, and insurgencies. These joint experiences have shaped reserve units collectively and individually, but not — largely — for maritime operations. The time, however, has come to recognize that what the navy reserve has done in the past two decades in land operations must fundamentally shift and take what the Navy Reserve has learned while preparing for other challenges. The culture, training, and operational opportunities must change. Every community must be made ready today for the naval war we all know is coming — a war that in some ways is already here.



Claude Berube, PhD, is a contributing editor at War on the Rocks and assistant professor at the U.S. Naval Academy. He is an officer in the Navy Reserve. The views are his own and do not reflect the Navy or the U.S. government. Twitter @cgberube


Image: U.S. Navy Photo