Few Combat Reservists Hear Call
Congress wonders why Pentagon seems to be sending mostly support units to the Middle East
UNITED STATES military reservists called to active duty because of the Persian Gulf crisis include cargo pilots, truck drivers, nurses, and an array of other specialists needed to support armed forces in the field. But one reserve category is conspicuous by its absence: combat troops. Although some of the US divisions shipped to Saudi Arabia are supposed to be filled out with gun-toting reservists, the Pentagon has declined to call up these units. This has irritated many members of Congress, who complain that it calls into question the long-standing trend of shifting portions of the Pentagon's fighting strength into the reserves.
``Why have a system with combat reserves if they aren't used?'' asks Rep. Les Aspin, (D) of Wisconsin, the House Armed Services Committee chairman.
Some lawmakers wonder if Pentagon officials don't trust the readiness of combat reserve units. Stephen Duncan, assistant secretary of defense for reserve affairs, says that's not true. ``There's no reluctance by the civilian leadership to call whatever units are required,'' he said in a meeting with reporters.
Commanders on the scene in Saudi Arabia have been calling the shots as to what types of reserves are mobilized, Assistant Secretary Duncan says. Whether combat reserves are called is ``still an open question,'' he says.
As of this writing about 26,500 part-time reservists have been called to active duty, out of the total 1.1 million US Reserve and National Guard troops. About 18,000 of this total are Army reservists. The Navy and Air Force account for approximately 3,900 apiece, and the Coast Guard 600. All mobilized so far are service-support troops, whose duties range from loading and flying cargo planes to washing and cooking.
But under the so-called ``Total Force'' concept promoted by the Pentagon since the mid-'70s, support troops are not the only US military weekend warriors. A growing number of the Pentagon's combat teeth have been moved into the reserves, to maintain as much power as possible with limited budgets. Of the 11 active-duty Army divisions based on US soil, eight need the addition of reserve battalions or brigades to bring them to full strength.
Two of the divisions sent to the Gulf area, the 24th Mechanized and the 1st Cavalry, count on these reserve ``round-out'' brigades. But instead of activating these units, the Pentagon patched in other active-duty forces.
``From a military effectiveness standpoint I can understand why you'd want to do that,'' says Martin Binkin, a reserve-forces analyst at the Brookings Institution. ``It's very difficult for any guard or reserve unit to maintain the state of readiness needed for instantly deploying somewhere.''
Still, Pentagon contingency plans have long allocated just this sort of quick-deployment roll to some reserve and guard units, Mr. Binkin notes. The 24th Mechanized Division, in particular, has been counted on to go overseas quickly in a Middle East crisis; its reserve brigade, based in Georgia, has received top-of-the-line M-1 tanks and first-class experience at the Army's elaborate National Training Center in the California desert.
Reserve and National Guard units have strong support in Congress, as they often have deep roots in local communities. The defense authorization bill recently approved by the House of Representatives includes a provision calling on the Pentagon to mobilize at least one National Guard combat brigade.
Doing so would test the reserve round-out system and boost the reserves' morale, points out Representative Aspin. With smaller defense budgets looming on the horizon, even more of the Army's strength could soon be moved into the reserves, he noted.
One reason combat reserves have yet to be mobilized is that under the terms of presidential mobilization authority reserves can be called up for only 180 days. Brush-up training and transportation to Saudi Arabia would be lengthy enough so that soon after arrival it would be time to turn around and come home.
According to Assistant Secretary Duncan the administration is working with Congress on a possible legislative change of the 180-day limit. ``We're still working on a rotation policy for all forces,'' active and reserve, he said.