It's time to merge Reserve forces

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I come at this issue from a unique perspective: I served thirty years in the Army Reserve, retiring as a colonel, and I am co-author of its only official history, a book entitled Twice the Citizen. I have studied its history and accomplishments and understand as well as anyone why it was created and why it no longer needs to be a separate entity.

I testified in favor of such a merger when the Commission on the National Guard and Reserves held its hearings in 2007, and the result was hate mail from fellow federal reservists and a shrug from the members of the Commission. So, why do I surface this notion at the present time?

Because now is the appropriate time for it to happen, and there is no compelling reason why it should not happen. In 1997 the Congressional Budget Office estimated that merger of the Army Reserve and Army National Guard would save $2 billion over five years, a sum which does not include any of the savings from merging the Air Force Reserve and the Air National Guard. This sum probably underestimates the value of such a merger today, and while it is not a huge amount by Defense Department standards, $2 billion is $2 billion, and in the current budget environment, every little bit helps.

But I do not couch my argument primarily on the monetary savings that would accrue from a merger. I base it more on the fact that there is simply no longer a good reason for parallel federal and State military forces. As a historian, I understand why there was such a need when the Army Reserve was created in 1908. The Guard was undependable as a federal asset, with Governors holding enormous power over its deployments. It also had what I believe to be a mostly-deserved reputation as a “good old boys club,” where promotions depended as much on who you knew as on what you could do.

Those days are long gone. Federal law makes it clear that the National Guard is both a federal and a state asset, to be called to federal duty as required, and Guard units have proven their ability and professionalism in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Moreover, state governors need to be able to call on the assets that are currently contained in the Army Reserve in the event of a natural or man-made disaster. National Guard units are primarily combat-types, while units of the USAR are primarily combat support and combat service support, like truck companies and engineer detachments and medical units—precisely what one needs if there is a tornado or earthquake or flood. Such a merger would also increase the ability of the Guard to carry out its homeland security functions, which have increased exponentially since 2001.

It is time for bold ideas that shake up a military establishment rife with redundancy. The time is right to merge the units of the Army Reserve into the Army National Guard and the units of the Air Force Reserve into the Air National Guard, transferred in total: lock, stock, and barrel. I would leave the USAR with individual reservists and would not touch the federal reserves of the Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard. I know that this has been suggested in the past without any success, but I believe the time was never as right as it is now. Congress, are you listening?

Currie is a retired U.S. Army Reserve colonel and a retired professor from the National Defense University. The opinions expressed in this essay are not necessarily those of the National Defense University or the Department of Defense.