WASHINGTON — Late last July, five days before Iraq invaded Kuwait, Lt. Col. David Evans and 568 members of his armored brigade completed a rigorous, three-week course in desert warfare in the 120-degree heat of the Army's National Training Center in California's Mojave Desert.
But instead of commanding 58 M-1 tanks on the Saudi Arabian sands, Evans is coaching the undefeated high school football team in rural Dalton, Ga. And he is waiting for a call to active duty--with the Army National Guard--that still hasn't come.
Evans' enforced idleness--and that of other guardsmen and reservists who are not being used in the Persian Gulf deployment--has touched off a politically and emotionally charged debate that may shake up the future composition of U.S. military forces.
The question being asked is: Are these reserve and guard units up to the job? Recent studies by Congress and the Defense Department itself indicate the answer may be "no."
For more than a decade, the Pentagon has organized the armed forces around a "total-force" policy: maintaining a full-time armed force that is smaller than needed to fulfill assigned missions but that can be augmented with reserve units designed to be integrated into selected active units in time of need.
In 1973, when the draft was abolished and the nation switched to an all-volunteer army, Congress and the Pentagon developed this system of combat-ready reserves, in part to hold down the cost of meeting projected personnel needs. Eight of the 11 Army divisions based in the United States require the addition of a combat reserve brigade to attain full strength.
These so-called round-out brigades are supposed to be as ready as their active-duty counterparts. Over the last six years, Congress has spent $26 billion to provide reserve units with up-to-date equipment.
But when President Bush began sending reserves to the gulf Aug. 22, he bypassed the round-out brigades and other combat units. Although more than 20,000 reservists are serving in Operation Desert Shield, they are all noncombat specialists--cargo pilots, nurses and truck drivers.
The conspicuous disparity between theory and practice has touched off a heated debate about the efficacy of the current force structure and the readiness of the guard and reserve units that are supposed to be its backbone.
The central question is whether these units are being kept at home because they are not actually trained or equipped to do the job, or simply because senior officers in the regular armed forces have little confidence in them.
"The combat units of the National Guard and reserves are trained, ready and capable of performing their missions right alongside their active component counterparts," says Rep V. (Sonny) Montgomery (D-Miss.), one of the reserves' most ardent supporters in Congress.
"There is no reason we should not mobilize and deploy these units," he contends.
But Benjamin W. Covington III, a retired Army colonel who headed a major Pentagon study of the reserves, disputes that assertion.
"Clearly, no unit that operates under the constraints of our reserve components can achieve the same level of readiness as a parallel active Army unit, given far more resources, time and so on," Covington argues. "I find it difficult to believe that any rational human being can arrive at a different conclusion."
Until recently, the Administration has defended its position by arguing that Bush has been forced to keep the combat units at home because previous law allowed the President to call up reserves only for a maximum of 180 days.
But in the waning hours of the congressional session that adjourned last week, proponents of the reserves slipped through legislation that would permit the President to call up reserve combat units for up to 360 days.
Rep. Les Aspin (D-Wis.), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, argues that Operation Desert Shield provides a perfect "crisis" in which to test the total-force concept.
"We've heard a number of reasons for not sending guard and reserve combat units, but they're about as solid as sand," Aspin complains. "I suspect the most important factor is the active-force prejudice against using reserve forces."
Rep. Beverly B. Byron (D-Md.), a key member of the House Armed Services Committee, agrees. If there's anywhere to test current U.S. military strategy, the Saudi Arabian desert is the place, she says. "The nation has a right to know whether our investment in the reserves has been the right answer. If it hasn't been the right answer, we need to change course now before we build the force of the future."
As a result, the Pentagon and the Administration are about to face the sensitive job of either mobilizing combat reserve units or acknowledging what many in the military have whispered for years and what two recent reports seem to confirm: that the reserves may not be up to the job.