Small Wars Journal

Adapting Ike: The Case for a Reserve-Centric U.S. Military

Sun, 04/01/2018 - 7:53pm

Adapting Ike: The Case for a Reserve-Centric U.S. Military

Myles Tucker

Introduction: Pivot Points – 1953 & 2018

Faced with an aggressive Russia, expansionary China, and rising military expenditures swelling the national debt, American policymakers are left with a choice: will the country continue to maintain a standing capability to tackle multiple major threats across the world at any fiscal or diplomatic cost? Alternatively, will America’s leaders buck defense orthodoxy and ask the public to question the true price of supporting an unparalleled military colossus?

In an address to the public, the President made clear his thoughts on the matter and declared, “[e]very gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed.”[i]

These words, delivered by Dwight Eisenhower, bring to light the similarities between the challenges the United States confronted in 1953 at the onset of the Cold War and the ones it faces in the present. While the specific threats and fiscal pressures have changed in the past 65 years, the heart of the decisions to be made over the scope and cost of military capabilities remain.

Today, the U.S. faces rising major power actors in Russia and China alongside a set of protracted, slow burning conflicts in Southwest Asia that no longer garner significant public interest.[ii] Eisenhower likewise dealt with stalemate in Korea and a shift in major power dynamics that followed the death of Joseph Stalin. President Eisenhower seized this pivot point to expound his argument for a defense posture centered on “massive response.” This theory molded the U.S. military around a robust nuclear enterprise that acted both as a strategic deterrent to major power conflict with the Soviet Union and prevented excess defense spending on an inefficiently large standing military.

In his renowned, “A Chance for Peace” address, President Eisenhower warned that excess defense spending would take away from more productive, domestic priorities of American society.[iii] His vision contrasted that of his Pentagon and the contemporaneous defense establishment that instead promoted “flexible response,” which called for a large standing military capable of waging war across the spectrum of intensities.

Ultimately, the supporters of the latter concept won out and President John Kennedy (notably influenced by President Eisenhower’s Army Chief of Staff, retired General Maxwell Taylor) expanded the armed forces to create a “flexible response” posture, inclusive of the capability to fight non-nuclear major power conflicts with a large standing force. [iv]

Inefficiency in “Two Major Conflict” Force Posturing

This structure became the bedrock of the U.S. military’s force structure and strategy, exemplified today through the unclassified summary of the 2018 National Defense Strategy. In the document, Secretary of Defense James Mattis detailed his vision for the U.S. armed forces: to “defeat” one major power, “deter” aggression from another, “disrupt” WMD attacks, and “defend the homeland.”[v] This force posture is the latest in a line of strategic plans that reinforce the norm which calls on the military to posture itself to fight two major conflicts (TMC) simultaneously in separate theaters of war, as well as support various other strategic objectives.[vi]

However, as President Eisenhower warned, the sustainment of such a massive military force comes at a high cost. Faced with rising expenditures (exemplified by the $165B defense spending increase in February’s appropriations bill), a challenge to maintain military readiness, and a recruiting pool that is increasingly unfit to fight, the country’s leaders should ask if maintaining a standing TMC capability is the most prudent solution to the United States’ strategic challenges.[vii],[viii] ,[ix] The uncomfortable answer to that question may very well be, “no.”


While the United States will be able to emerge victorious if forced to fight in a major power conflict, such an endeavor would likely require massive nationwide mobilization. Material shortfalls experienced by the U.S. military in its dual posture for TMC and deployed operations in support of the protracted post-9/11 conflicts highlight the need to evaluate this scenario.[x],[xi]


Given this, it is worth asking how adequately current military forces and their stateside support structure would be able to successfully sustain even one major power conflict without nationwide mobilization. This undercuts the requirement to maintain the TMC-focused, active-duty centric military force structure and exposes a large-scale inefficiency of taxpayer dollars by means of diminished returns.


Restructuring the United States Armed Forces Around Reserve Components


Instead of continuing to pour trillions of dollars a decade into the existing TMC model, policymakers should study a right-sized alternative built around a large reserve component (inclusive of federal reservists and National Guard personnel).[xii] A restructure of this sort would allow the government to reallocate a significant portion of the country’s massive defense expenditures towards more universally beneficial programs – the likes of which President Eisenhower identified as at-risk almost 70 years ago – while maintaining the capability to win a major power conflict.      


It must be noted that mimicking Eisenhower’s “massive response” policy is neither prudent nor acceptable by modern standards. In no small part resulting from President Eisenhower’s refusal to use nuclear weapons as operational or tactical assets in their infancy, these weapons have been limited strictly to the realm of strategic deterrence.[xiii] Further, the past sixty-five years have proven that wars involving nuclear powers can be fought with conventional weapons, albeit at very high costs.


With a personnel structure centered on reserve forces, the National Guard and the five service branches’ reserves would require expansion. To fill these ranks, the Department of Defense and state military departments could develop new incentives, such as focused-tax breaks and student-loan forgiveness, to recruit a larger population of citizen-service members. By creating wide-scoped, class-inclusive benefits to serve in a part-time force, military service could appeal to a larger swath of the American public.


Additionally, the services could expand eligibility and improve recruitment into the reserves by creating a new duty status falling between the requirements levied upon current traditional reservists and those of the inactive ready reservists. This could manifest in an adaptation of the “one weekend a month, two weeks a year” model (the backbone of American reserve service) where personnel would drill only two weeks a year. Indeed, the United States can learn from allies who currently use this model, such as Finland, where a shared border with an aggressive Russia has been matched with doctrine that calls on a large and basically proficient reserve force for primary defense.[xiv],[xv] Another way to widen the appeal and scope of reserve service could be evolved from current discussions within the U.S. defense establishment around loosening social and physiological recruitment standards.[xvi]


While these reservists may take longer to return to proficiency than traditional reservists or the active duty force, the ability for the U.S. to pull from a large pool of basically trained, mobilization-ready service members in the event of impending major power conflict is an asset that should not be underestimated in terms of cost and military capability.


Role of Active Duty in a Reserve-Centric Force


Even with a reserve-centered military, the United States would need to maintain an active duty force to operate and sustain strategic deterrence assets and infrastructure, conduct military operations other than war, and direct the acquisition, modernization, and sustainment of assets. To this end, the United States would continue (following a necessary review and likely scaling down of power projection requirements) to maintain presence in areas of national economic and diplomatic interest, such as the South China Sea and Europe.


In the event of a major power conflict, the active duty force would also serve as the first line of defense – a stop gap to halt an aggressive foreign power while reserve forces mobilize. Between the active duty and an expanded reserve force, the United States would be able to deter military action from another major power and, if necessary, fight effectively while the country at large mobilizes.


Fiscal Impact of Restructure


The number of active duty personnel required in a reserve-centric construct would be significantly less than the force’s current size. This aspect of the proposed posture would reduce defense expenditures dramatically, since a reservist’s total compensation is just a fifth of what an active duty member makes.[xvii],[xviii] This figure does not factor in the associated cost savings that would be realized by reduced travel, training, infrastructure, administration, and distribution of benefits (to include the increasingly expensive Tricare Prime program) afforded to active duty members.[xix] In total, the Department of Defense spends over $150B annually on personnel expenditures – nearly equal to military operations and maintenance.[xx]


More indirectly, policymakers would likely be compelled to use a reserve-centric military overseas in a more restrained manner. Since calling-up reservists would entail removing Americans from both their civilian jobs and personal lives, elected officials may be forced to adjust their political equation for such decisions given added pressure from constituents and the business community alike. It is worth questioning if the current in Southwest Asia would have evolved as they did if a large majority of deployed personnel had to be pulled away from civilian workforce for extended periods of time for seventeen years.


This would likely manifest in Congress scrutinizing more closely actions taken by the executive branch under the Authorization for Use of Military Force and the War Powers Act. The George W. Bush, Obama, and Trump administrations utilized these laws widely and ignited bipartisan debate over the constitutionality of their actions.[xxi],[xxii],[xxiii] Beyond this, having a smaller active duty force may help avoid “supply induced demand” for military action that some have speculated to have played a role in contemporary military operations.[xxiv]


If a restructured military were more apt to be used with additional restraint, the cost savings from a reduction in overseas operations may prove colossal. Using this calculus, one wonders what percentage of the $1.6T in Global War on Terror & Overseas Contingency Operations appropriations the U.S. Department of Defense would have received and spent since 2001.[xxv]


Reinvestment to Strengthen Nationwide Resilience


With the savings the United States could realize by shifting from TMC doctrine and right-sizing the military around a reservist-based force, the country would have the capability to fund domestic programs that would not only strengthen American civic society and improve resilience to a variety of threats but improve the socio-economic capabilities necessary to emerge victorious in a major power conflict.


Many programs worthy of increased investment are descendant from those President Eisenhower refocused his budget towards after reducing defense expenditures. By simultaneously focusing government spending on infrastructure, education, and social safety nets, Eisenhower improved the daily lives and outlook for many Americans.[xxvi]


These investments paved the way not only for booming economic growth and an increased standard of living but set the United States up for wide scale innovation. This laid the groundwork for the technology that helped the United States emerge as the military and economic powerhouse capable of collapsing the Soviet Union. By refocusing the military, reducing defense spending, and directing saved funds towards critical domestic programs, President Eisenhower paved the way for America’s strength in the second half of the 20th century.


Today, policymakers can do the same. Appropriating cuts in defense spending towards infrastructure could bolster the United States’ position as the global leader in commerce, decrease logistics costs for industry, and fortify the nation’s wartime mobilization capability. Reinvestment into the country’s schools and the next generation of Americans would give school children the opportunity to excel in fundamental and emerging skills, preparing them for success in a changing economy, while exceeding standards for induction into the military.


While not an area Eisenhower chose to invest in, today’s leaders could direct saved funds towards healthcare so that every American, regardless of income or class, receives world-class preventative and emergency healthcare. This kind of investment would help quell skyrocketing societal costs sunk into preventable medical conditions and ensure that America’s citizens are fit-to-fight if called upon to serve.[xxvii]


Beyond fiscal reinvestment, expansion of reserve forces and inclusion of a wider pool of Americans into military service would mark a large step in addressing a noted gap in the experiences had by Americans who have served or have loved ones who served in the military, and those who do not. Expanded service through participation in the reserves would not only allow for more cost-effective readiness but could strengthen civic society through expanded participation in national service – a policy priority currently championed by several American elected and civic figures.[xxviii],[xxix]


Conclusion: Opportunity for Action


From this perspective, the benefits of investing in domestic programs reach far beyond quality of life and bolster the United States’ ability to win a major power conflict. Indeed, it makes current funding of the active duty-centric force appear inefficient and provides adequate justification for policymakers to actively consider a shift from the TMC strategy. While this move would be slow by nature and impacted by unknown future foreign policy events, initial discussions and action to make change in such a massive enterprise can be made immediately.


Elected leaders will face political resistance by bucking the “strong on defense” archetype, but there exists real opportunity for candid debate.  Ultimately, a shift from TMC doctrine and an active duty-heavy force towards a reserve-centric military appears a prudent course of action when placed on equal footing with current policy. Restructuring would improve the U.S.’ capability to win a major power conflict in realistic context, and would do so while avoiding the diminished returns of massive defense spending seen under the TMC posture – or in Ike’s words, the “theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed.”[xxx]


End Notes


[i] Eisenhower, Dwight. “Chance for Peace.” Address to American Society of Newspaper Editors. Washington, D.C. 16 April, 1953. Accessed 19 March, 2018.

[ii] Savell, Stephanie. “The Real Reason Americans Don’t Care About the Costs of War.” The Nation. 15 February, 2018. Accessed 19 March, 2018.

[iii] Eisenhower. “Chance for Peace.” 16 April, 1953.

[iv] Thomas, Evan. Ike’s Bluff: President Eisenhower’s Secret Battle to Save the World. New York: Back Bay Books. 2012. Page 202.

[v] United States Department of Defense. “Summary of the 2018 National Defense Strategy of the United States of America.” 2018. Accessed 19 March, 2018. Pages 5-6.

[vi] Goure, Daniel. “General Dempsey’s ‘Two, Two, Two, One’ Strategy.” Lexington Institute. May 13, 2014. Accessed March 19, 2018.

[vii] The Associated Press. “Budget Agreement Adds Money for Defense, Infrastructure.” Yahoo News. February 8, 2018. Accessed March 19, 2018.

[viii] Herb, Jeremy & Dianna Gallagher. “Many Warnings of Readiness’ Crisis’ Before Latest Ship Accidents.” CNN. August 25, 2017. Accessed 19 March, 2018.

[ix] Feeney, Nolan. “Pentagon: 7 in 10 Youths Would Fail to Qualify for Military Service.” Time. 29 June, 2014. Accessed 19 March, 2018.

[x] Vanden Brook, Tom. “Air Force Burning Through Bomb Stockpiles Striking ISIL.” USA Today. December 3, 2015. Accessed March 19, 2018.

[xi] Griffin, Jennifer & Lucas Tomlinson. “’Wiped Out’: Air Force Losing Pilots and Planes to Cuts, Scrounging for Spare Parts.” Fox News. May 14, 2016. Accessed March 19, 2018.

[xii] Plumer, Brad. “America’s Staggering Defense Budget, in Charts.” Washington Post. January 7, 2013. Accessed March 19, 2018.

[xiii] Thomas. Ike’s Bluff: President Eisenhower’s Secret Battle to Save the World. 2012. Pages 413-414.

[xiv] Kinstler, Linda. “How to Survive a Russian Hack: Lessons from Eastern Europe and the Baltics.” The Atlantic. February 2, 2017. Accessed 19 March, 2017.

[xv] Finland Ministry of Defense. “Finnish Reserve Concept.” September 26, 2016. Accessed March 19, 2018.

[xvi] United States Department of Defense. Fact Sheet: Forging Two New Links to the Force of the Future.” November 1, 2016. Accessed March 19, 2018. Page 3.

[xvii] United States Government Accountability Office. “Military Personnel: Reserve Compensation Has Increased Significantly and Is Likely to Rise Further as DOD and VA Prepare for the Implementation of Enhanced Educational Benefits.” July 6, 2009. Accessed March 19, 2018. Page 8.

[xviii] Congressional Budget Office. “Cost of Military Pay and Benefits in the Defense Budget. .” November, 2012. Accessed March 19, 2018. Page 2.

[xix] ibid. Page 34.

[xx] ibid. Page 15.

[xxi] Richey, Warren. “Bush Pushed the Limits of Presidential Power.” Christian Science Monitor. January 14, 2009. Accessed March 19, 2018.

[xxii] Ackerman, Bruce. “Obama’s Unconstitutional War.” Foreign Policy. March 24, 2011. Accessed March 19, 2018.

[xxiii] Savage, Charlie. “Was Trump’s Syria Strike Illegal? Explaining Presidential War Powers.” New York Times. April 7, 2017. Accessed March 19, 2018.

[xxiv] Riza, M. Shane. Killing Without Heart: Limits on Robotic Warfare in an Age of Persistent Conflict. Washington, D.C.: Potomac Books. 2013. Page 77.

[xxv] Office of the Under Secretary of Defense (Comptroller). “National Defense Budget Estimate for FY 17.” March, 2016. Accessed 19 March, 2018. Pages 22-24.

[xxvi] Goldfield, David. “Eisenhower’s Tax Policies Invested in the Future, Not the Few.” ASU Zocolo Public Square. December 19, 2017. Accessed March 19, 2018.

[xxvii] “Preventative Healthcare.” United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. September 15, 2017. Accessed April 1, 2018.

[xxviii] McChrystal, Stanley. “You Don’t Have To Wear a Military Uniform to Serve Your Country.” The Atlantic. July 20, 2016. Accessed March 19, 2018.

[xxix] Moulton, Seth. “A Call to Service Can Help Unite a Divided Nation.” Defense One. 30 November, 2015. Accessed March 19, 2018.

[xxx] Eisenhower. “Chance for Peace.” 16 April, 1953.

About the Author(s)

Myles Tucker is an active duty U.S. Air Force officer with experience in aircraft maintenance and operational test. He holds degrees from the George Washington University Elliott School of International Affairs and the Northeastern University School of Public Policy and Urban Affairs. The views represented in this article are his own and do not reflect those of the U.S. Air Force, U.S Department of Defense, or any other U.S. Government agency.