America deserves the best military money can buy, and while our Army, Navy and Air Force are the strongest in the world, they are not maximizing taxpayer dollars. To do that, leaders at the Pentagon need to dramatically alter the way they approach the budgeting process.

Responsible government leadership calls for an approach to fiscal planning that first explores the most cost-effective options. In the military, that means looking to the National Guard and Reserves, because the reserve component brings many of the same capabilities to the fight as our active duty counterparts, but at a significantly lower cost.

Of course, our active duty brothers and sisters are indispensible, and our country relies on them for essential missions, such as initial ground combat and special operations. Once deployed, however, you can count on our Guardsmen and Reservists to successfully perform the same critical missions as our full-time troops, and at roughly the same price. When not deployed, however, we are a striking bargain for the taxpayer: The pay and operational costs to field an Army National Guardsman or Reservist is less than one-third of the cost for an active duty soldier.

To help lower overall spending, the Defense Department is currently considering a proposal that would reduce the number of active duty brigade
combat teams, or BCTs, from 45 to 30, while maintaining the current number of Reserve BCTs at 28, for a total of 58. However, if for instance, the Army were to reduce the number of active duty BCTs to 22, it could add 24 BCTs to the reserves - for a total of 74 BCTs - without significantly increasing overall cost. This is the type of thinking that needs to be explored across all levels and components of the Armed Forces.

The path to sustainability, therefore, is clear: Any mission that can be accomplished by a reserve component unit should be assigned to a reserve
component unit. Taking that cost-effective approach would require a new way of thinking at the Pentagon, where budgeting has been driven for decades by a Cold War paradigm of building up the active component and simply filling in at the margins with the Guard and Reserves. That is a model from a bygone era, and America can do better.

If the Defense Department insists on maintaining an active duty force that is vastly larger than it needs during peacetime, the obvious consequence will be a loss in military capability, as disproportionate funding will be funneled toward maintaining those active duty troops. Only by investing in our cost-effective reserve component will we be able to grow our equipment, training and infrastructure, and create a stronger, more flexible force that is prepared to respond to emergencies at home and contingencies abroad.

The past 11 years have exposed an unprecedented reliance on the reserve component as Guardsmen and Reservists have been heavily integrated into
overseas operations, working side-by-side with active duty troops. Putting the reserve component on a shelf and allowing the skill and experience we have gained to dwindle and atrophy would be a significant national security risk and a huge fiscal mistake.

It is time to return our nation to its Colonial roots and keep the National Guard and Reserves at the forefront of our national defense.

Maj. Gen. Baldwin serves as Adjutant General for the California National Guard, the nation's largest and most frequently deployed National Guard force.