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Keep the Reservists Ready

August 10, 2003

The Defense Department spends more than $1 billion each day and finds its ground forces stretched thin. Sergeants, colonels and members of Congress wonder whether 40,000 or so troops should be added to the more than half a million soldiers now on active duty from the Balkans to Iraq, Ft. Irwin to the Sinai.

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said last week that a reorganization of the U.S. military might be better than adding troops. He is right. But as the Pentagon studies whether to give some jobs to civilians, either as permanent federal employees or contract labor, it must beware of downgrading the role of reservists.

The U.S. military has been an all-volunteer force for a generation. The end of the draft meant that basic training, combat and the overall military culture became unknowns for most Americans. Ready Reserve and National Guard troops provide the armed forces' closest connection to society and the political culture. When officials call those reservists to active duty, it causes gaps in police forces, accounting firms and factories. That drives the high stakes home to friends and co-workers, not just immediate families.

Last month, Rumsfeld suggested shifting a broad range of professional specialties from the reserves to men and women on active duty to create a force that could mobilize for war within 15 days. Readiness is vital, but the active-duty forces have demonstrated their ability to react quickly to trouble spots. America doesn't need hair-trigger responses to situations in which U.S. troops can be killed; dangerous missions shouldn't be conducted solely by professionals who are out of sight and mind of the society in whose name they fight and whose support they need.

Reservists play especially important roles in military policing, intelligence and civil affairs. Spreading the burden among other nations is one way to lessen dependence on "weekend warriors" called to active duty. Getting outside help also would lengthen the time between tours of duty abroad for units like the 3rd Infantry Division, which went to the Middle East well before the Iraq war, did much of the fighting and then faced an extension of duty when Iraqi guerrilla attacks flared. Long, repeated overseas deployments strain families and reduce the likelihood of reenlistments, forcing the military to spend more money on recruitment and training.

At the end of the Cold War, more than 2 million men and women were on active duty. Today the total is about 1.4 million. Transferring some jobs to civilians won't necessarily save money -- the new workers will have to be paid -- but it could free thousands of troops to fight wars. That's the kind of change the Pentagon needs to consider, not reducing the size of the Ready Reserve or National Guard.

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