Moving Beyond Total Force: Building a True Strategic Reserve


In the early 1970s, Army Chief of Staff Gen. Creighton Abrams — fresh off a frustrating defeat in Vietnam — unveiled a new, all-volunteer total force military. It combined the active duty, reserve, and guard components into one mutually reinforcing force. Abrams’ construct transformed the role of the reserves from a strategic stand-by force (which President Lyndon Baines Johnson had famously avoided calling up during Vietnam) into an operationally ready service designed to augment active duty troops deployed in combat. Legend has it that Abrams declared to his fellow Vietnam-scarred generals, “they’re not taking us to war again without calling up the reserves.” Whether or not Abrams actually ever meant the total force as a tripwire to restrain future presidents, the reserves have deployed in every war since the total force debuted — fighting in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Libya, and beyond. They serve side by side with their active duty peers in the air, on the ground, and at sea, and are perhaps the most operationally ready reserve in U.S. history.

But it’s time to move beyond the total force.

In 2018, the Department of Defense published a new National Defense Strategy that called on the department to pivot towards great-power competition and invest in the talent to do so. A logical answer to the strategy’s talent call is to lean more on the reserves. More flexible than the active duty, the reserves can draw on civilian airmen/soldiers/sailors with commercial skills and unique experiences. As a result, the reserves at first glance seem to be the perfect, cost-effective solution to an overly rigid active duty personnel system that rewards standardized career progression and cultural conformity — both anathema to the specialized tech talent that the National Defense Strategy highlights.



But the reserves are not currently optimized to attract and retain this kind of talent. That’s because Abram’s imperative to mold an operationally ready reserve force — combined with a total force stretched to its limit in conflicts across the globe — has prioritized creating the best airmen/soldiers/sailors and undervalued (or at least not optimized) the citizen portion of reservists’ skills.

This is a missed opportunity, because the citizen portion of a reservist’s identity is a unique asset, sometimes more valuable than a member’s military qualifications. Indeed, in a recent call out for software developers, venture capitalists, and innovation experience in the Air Force reserves, over 150 airmen responded. In the responses (which I helped aggregate for the Air Force as part of my reserve duty) were Ph.D.s, senior executives, startup founders, and software developers with major tech companies. Most were in reserve jobs or billets that didn’t use their civilian skills. There is extraordinary talent latent in the reserves. Now the United States needs to tap into that talent.

It is time to create a true strategic reserve capability — one that can attract and then use the kind of citizen talent that is needed for a long-term competition with China. In order to do that, the reserves should reinvigorate its individual ready reserve, reallocate work by projects instead of billets, and build a database of strategic talent. If done with the right technology and cultural adaptation, the country can have a true strategic reserve — all without competing with the operationally ready reserve. Below I discuss the evolution of the U.S. reserve force and how it got to its current state, detail why this no longer serves American grand strategy, and discuss what steps the United States can take to create a much-needed strategic reserve capability.

How the Reserves Got Here

The U.S. military reserve was born in the years just prior to World War I as “a voluntarily recruited standing force … primarily with support, specialist, and technical missions.” This was distinct from the century-old National Guard, which was explicitly designed to quell ground force threats to state territories. The Navy leaned heavily on reservists during World War II, but the reserves wouldn’t become a big part of ground strategy until the Cold War. With NATO forces greatly outnumbered by the Soviet military, the United States needed a large stateside reserve force to make deterrence credible. While the reserves may have played an important role in Cold War strategy, they were mobilized only sparingly (e.g., during the Berlin airlift and Cuban missile crisis). Funding for training and equipment lagged active duty and so, leading up to the end of the Vietnam War, reserve forces were ill-prepared for most operational support. To make matters worse, politicians were loath to call up this strategic reserve and famously Johnson turned to the draft in part to avoid mobilizing the reserve to serve in Vietnam.

This led to big changes in the early 1970s. Both the Army’s Abrams Doctrine and Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird’s total force structure were designed to make the reserve force more operationally ready. This allowed the military to transition to an all-volunteer force without significantly increasing the number of personnel in the active duty. The total force concept created by Laird and Abrams envisioned a reserve force not as a strategic last-use capability to shore up deterrence against a larger Soviet army, but instead as a pressure release for active duty (and political decision-makers) to maintain a global presence. The reserves did this well. The reserve forces deployed and performed commensurate with active duty peers in the Gulf War and continued to support U.S. military campaigns throughout the 1990s.

The operational focus of the reserves switched into overdrive after 9/11. Reservists across the services deployed frequently and for longer rotations. In order to maintain this pace of operational support, reservists had to meet active duty training standards, and subsequently spent more time on duty and less time as civilians. Reserve units built more active-guard-reserve billets and mirrored active duty readiness, training, and promotion requirements. The strategic reserve force was gone and in its place was an “active-duty light” version of reserves focused on supporting operational requirements of increasingly deployed active duty forces.

Why This Isn’t Good Enough Anymore

The initiatives that started with the total force in the 1970s and peaked during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have created an operationally ready reserve force that resembles more closely the active duty force than the strategic reserve force of the Cold War. That’s a good thing for fighting multiple conflicts with an all-volunteer force. And one way the reserves can support the National Defense Strategy is to continue to participate in counter-terrorism missions while active duty forces are geared for great-power competition. However, focusing only on the operational needs of the total force isn’t the best way to use the unique skills of reservists, and it is certainly not the optimal way to build the most talented force for competing with China or Russia.

Why can’t the active duty provide the talent the Department of Defense needs? Active duty struggles to keep up with the talent needs of its force, especially in the most technological and high-demand fields. Across the services, active duty forces are asking for more digital talent to develop software, integrate emerging technologies, or leverage cyber capabilities, all the while struggling to retain some of their core occupational specialties like pilots and special force operators. Rigidity in promotion structures, family accommodations, and training pipelines make it hard for the active duty to recruit, retain, or build all the talent it needs. Further, bottlenecks within officer accession programs, recruitment quotas tied to military operational specialties instead of skill sets, and training capacities mean that it is often difficult to optimize incoming individuals’ skills, experience, or education with the highly programmed “needs” of the active duty force.

The reserves, in contrast, offer a potential flexible solution to the built-in rigidity of the active duty. In many of the services, reservists opt into their units (and usually their deployments) and can flex between part-time and full-time positions throughout their career. Unfortunately, in the recent years the flexibility of the reserves has not been used to its advantage. Reservists who don’t move units or deploy, who have “bad years” by not participating enough days, or who opt for highly flexible part time positions are less likely to get promoted and, ultimately, can be cut from the force in a very similar process as the active duty’s rigid up or out structure.

To make this problem worse, the military doesn’t even know the extent of how much talent it is losing (or not using) in the reserves. Reservists rarely exit the military in the same way as active duty, transitioning instead to non-participating status and gradually leaving the force — often without triggering an exit survey. And perhaps most importantly for the optimization of this talent, occupational specialty codes used by reservists, designed to delineate between infantry and cavalry or intelligence and cyber, rarely give the total force a window into the unique civilian skills that reservists bring to the military. For instance, none of these delineations tells what experience a reservist has as a stack developer, network architect, venture capitalist, data scientist, or strategist.

How to Build a Strategic Reserve

A new strategic reserve can complement the operationally focused reserve by doing three things: expanding the workforce (both participating and non-participating reservists), optimizing work for reservists, and building a database of strategic skills and reservist contact information.

First, a strategic reserve can expand the workforce by improving both the participating and non-participating individual ready reserve programs. The individual ready reserve, unlike the selected reserve, is not constrained by a congressional end strength (for reference, there are approximately 1.3 million active duty members and almost 800,000 selected reserve members). Therefore, while it may be difficult to expand the selected reserve workforce without congressional approval, the services may increase their overall reserve end strength by increasing their number of individual ready reserve members. The problem in the past has been that very few individual ready reserve members maintain their readiness, meaning that using this force comes with a large time and administrative lag for medical screenings, security clearance updates, and new identification cards. Plus, members of the non-participating individual ready reserve often don’t update their contact information, making them difficult members to call up — especially for select projects or contingencies.

However, there are some individual ready reserve member programs that keep members minimally qualified. These programs provide an insight into how we could use the individual ready reserve better. The Air Force, for example, does this through its Category-E participating individual ready reserve programs like the Air Force Academy Liaison Officer and Civil Air Patrol. These members do not drill with a reserve unit and are responsible for accomplishing “points only” (retirement credit, but no pay) duty through their affiliation with their Category-E program. While these members aren’t paid for their minimal readiness and support to Category-E programs, they are eligible for both active duty and reserve orders. Further, because these are not selected service members, they don’t have to fulfill typical drill day requirements (known in the Air Force as individual duty training and annual training) before taking orders. This gives Category-E reservists in the Air Force one of the quickest routes for going onto long-term duty orders — a characteristic that is key for a strategic reserve designed to support crises or contingencies.

COVID-19 provides an illustrative (and personal) example of the promise of Category-E reservists. When the world went into lockdown in March, my husband, Lt. Col. Jeffrey Schneider — a Category-E Air Force Academy Liaison Officer and previous F-16 pilot — was flying full time for United Airlines and living in Silicon Valley. Jeff has an MBA and civilian program manager experience so when the Department of Defense put out a call for COVID-19 support, he went on orders with Defense Innovation Unit in nearby Mountain View. Within two weeks, he went from the individual ready reserve to full time and now leads a project to develop biowearable technology to detect COVID-19. The Defense Innovation Unit and Jeff saw an opportunity to leverage something that the Air Force Academy Liaison Officer program was not necessarily designed to do. This makes him an outlier. However, a strategic reserve could expand on these kinds of individual ready reserve programs to provide a more flexible, but still relatively ready, opportunity for reservists who might otherwise not be active participants in the military.           

This leads to the second important characteristic of a strategic reserve — the ability to match people to projects. Research suggests that high talent individuals, especially millennials, are more motivated by meaningful work than pure compensation. Therefore, in order to attract this top talent into the strategic reserve, the reserves should find a way to match reservists with the right work instead of pigeonholing reservists within billets that may not fit their expertise. There are already initiatives to do some of this kind of work optimization, including Cyber Command’s Points of Partnership team. The Navy also has a team of reservists that is able to drill remotely while being administratively controlled by one overarching reserve unit. Further, there are proposals underway in both the Air Force and Space Force for a new reserve construct called the Bullpen, which places reservists in an administrative unit while fulfilling work across the entire force (in some ways similar to the Navy’s construct). The Bullpen draws from a baseball strategy in which a team uses their pitching bullpen to build a large bench of pitchers with different strengths who rotate based on who they are playing, where they are playing, and what the opposing batters’ strengths are. The reservist Bullpen creates a similar function, notionally providing the administrative support for a large bench of operationally ready reserve members as well as participating individual ready reservists — all administratively controlled by the reserves, but working across the total force to support gigs that fit their unique expertise.

Finally, an expanded strategic reserve should facilitate a timelier use of reservists by creating a database of talent and potential volunteers. As the final report of the National Commission on Military, National, and Public Service recommended, the Department of Defense should provide ways for non-participating reserve members to volunteer their contact information, skills, and willingness to serve. This database of critical skills and national roster of volunteers could be used to generate quick, targeted reserve support and to create mechanisms for the active duty military to recruit reservists for both crisis and special project support.

When COVID-19 hit earlier this year, the reserves across the forces put out calls for doctors, nurses, epidemiologists, and technology developers. The process was hit or miss, mostly because these calls for support had to rely on antiquated opt-in mailings from Department of Defense websites or the proverbial “bro-network” of reservists. Maintaining a database of participating and non-participating reservists willing to be contacted in times of crises and contingencies (complete with contact information and details about skills and talents) can create a new strategic depth from the reserves.

What’s Required

Today’s reserve has become an extraordinarily competent operationally ready force. However, it is ill-suited for competition with China and Russia and may not even be best optimized to respond to contingencies in a post-pandemic world. Moving forward, the reserves should update technological applications that not only facilitate remote administration, but also pair reservists with “gigs” that optimize the use of their talents. An initiative out of Defense Innovation Unit, Gig Eagle, is designed to do just that by building an application where reserve members can post their skills and experience, while “customers” across the force can advertise flexible gigs. But like all programs, the Gig Eagle needs funding and support. The reserves should commit funds and personnel days to maintain Gig Eagle. Congress can help this effort by making it easier to convert budget money into reserve mandays and — perhaps most helpfully — by passing a budget.

Technology alone — even well-funded technology — will not create a strategic force. The reserves will also have to make organizational changes, build administrative support, and shield these potentially disruptive reforms from status quo impulses within the now entrenched operationally ready reserve culture in order to make this flexible construct work. The best option in the near term is to incubate strategic reserve organizations at the highest level of reserve leadership — preferably placing the strategic reserve directly below commanders of each armed service’s reserve component — and allow the initial cadre of strategic reserve leaders wide room for experimentation and autonomy. By placing these units in the reserve chain of command (instead of as an associated, supporting organization for an active duty unit), the reserves could emphasize the citizen part of the citizen-soldier/airman/sailor and build the administrative support required to optimize this new kind of reserve workforce. Finally, the strategic reserve force should be allowed to experiment with what kind of work and individuals are best suited for this new use of the reserves. Some kinds of projects that are asynchronous, unclassified, or use civilian skills like programming seem to fit really well into a new flexible construct. However, there are other uses of the strategic reserves (firefighters, doctors, scientists, etc.) that might be equally successful. Designing work requirements (Do they work full day? Pay by the minute, the hour, the day? Do they get health or life insurance?) that fit these different needs will be part of the experimental phase of the strategic reserves.

The biggest challenge, however, will not be in developing technology or building the administration of this larger strategic force. Instead, it will be culture that introduces the biggest hurdles for maximizing the reserves to support great-power competition. Can the military allow for such a different model of work? Can the Pentagon value members of a strategic reserve that don’t devote as much time as full-time reservists? Is the Defense Department ready to think about what makes a reserve officer or senior non-commissioned officer useful or ready for more responsibility or leadership? There will have to be big choices about promotion and retention with the introduction of the strategic reserve. Luckily, Congress has already given the military room to innovate here by doing away with up or out requirements. Now the reserves should use that as an opportunity to build and maintain a talented and flexible force.

It has been almost 50 years since Gen. Abrams and the post-Vietnam military adopted the total force. It is time for a change. The Department of Defense faces a talent gap that threatens to derail its competitive edge. Across its services, the military requires more technological proficiency, more flexibility, and greater strategic depth. Human capital is changing, as is the future of work. If the Pentagon continues to use the reserves only as an operational stopgap, it will miss out on a real opportunity to leverage the latent talent that exists within its civilian-airmen/soldier/sailors and, ultimately, fail in its efforts to compete.



Dr. Jacquelyn Schneider is a Hoover Fellow at Stanford University and a non-resident fellow at the Naval War College. She has fifteen years of combined active and reserve service in the U.S. Air Force.

Image: U.S. Navy