Boosting Lethality: Making the Army Reserve Combat-Ready
Two years into his plan to shape the U.S. Army Reserve into a more lethal and combat-ready force, Lt. Gen. Charles D. Luckey says changes in training, shifts in command relationships and a sharp focus on basic soldiering skills are bolstering readiness and the capacity for high-intensity combat.
Tackling the culture of a close to 200,000-strong federal force whose expertise is to provide support to the warfighter, the Reserve chief has crisscrossed the country with a message: The wars ahead are about to get tougher and the Reserve must be able to fight.
Reservists provide 78 percent of the Total Army’s sustainment capabilities, boasting deep technical and industry-specific knowledge and expertise among soldiers with full-time professional careers. There are theater-level engineer, medical, civil affairs, military police and expeditionary sustainment commands with specialties that include doctors, nurses, lawyers and chaplains; experts in cyber, artificial intelligence and quantum computing; and psychological operations, civil affairs, petroleum operations, field service, mortuary affairs and chemical units.
The biggest cultural change, Luckey said, will be “driving every soldier in the Army Reserve to embrace the reality, which is that all of us need to be ready on relatively short notice to operate effectively in the most contested, lethal environment, certainly since the Second World War, and arguably since the beginning of time.”
When Luckey took over as Reserve chief in June 2016, he put forth his intent that Reservists would be “capable, combat-ready and lethal.” He recalled that “the word ‘lethal’ was problematic for a lot of my own soldiers. I told them, yeah, you have your job to do, but if your position gets overrun, you would have to be able to defend yourself. If you have to kill somebody, you have to kill somebody.”
Ready Force X
Under his plan, called Ready Force X, units with high-demand capabilities are being identified to create a pool of soldiers who can rapidly deploy, some with as little as 30 days’ notice. However, Luckey is moving to keep the entire force more ready. This means ramping up the frequency and duration of combat training exercises, balancing the force’s command-and-control structure, and placing more emphasis on a return to core soldier competencies, which includes the well-being of families and community cohesion.
Since 9/11, he pointed out, the Reserve has been mobilizing and deploying and doing “superbly well” at distributing commodities, providing theater sustaining forces, opening ports and keeping things moving. “We’ve been really good at that,” he said. But, he warned, “the battlespace that we’re going to operate in next is not going to be like what we’ve seen before.”
It’s an admonition heard across the U.S. military as leaders predict higher-end combat against a near-peer adversary in a multidomain setting where things taken for granted in a counterinsurgency fight, such as air superiority, won’t be the norm. Luckey is determined to make sure Army Reservists understand what’s coming and what will be expected of them. He wants to strengthen the Reserve team by fostering a culture mirroring the Regular Army, with integration across skill sets based on a common uniform and shared fundamentals of soldiering and leadership.
“This notion that the Army Reserve is going to basically be on a [forward operating base] safe and secure with a perimeter defended by firemen,” he said, “is gone.” Instead, Luckey suggested Reservists at work in a war zone could be subjected to air attack, massive disruption with cyber events and bombing. “That means your entire theater of operations is now contested in every domain.”
At the forefront of the effort to expand combat lethality among Ready Force X units is Operation Cold Steel. Inaugurated as a test event in April and May 2017 with 1,800 Reservists from some 60 units, the largest live-fire exercise in Army Reserve history completed its second iteration in August. Operation Cold Steel II took place over 11 months in five locations with more than three times the number of soldiers as the first exercise.
The stakes are high. Soldiers are being transported out of the counterinsurgency fight of the past 17 years and into one where the enemy has the same advantages. Communications are disrupted, simulated aerial, chemical and cyber attacks are inserted, and terrain is denied. This forces leaders to quickly adapt and make decisions on how to execute a mission in a disrupted environment.
Hosted by the Reserve’s 84th Training Command, Cold Steel is meant to boost broad operational capability among units with high-demand capabilities, such as engineers, medical personnel and transportation soldiers. By training in mounted and ground crew-served gunnery, they increase the number of master gunners and hone leadership skills. The intended effect is confident soldiers with more capable warfighting skills, and the creation of a training cadre to help the Army Reserve’s most in-demand units surge more quickly after mobilization.
Over more than a decade and a half of mobilizing and deploying, Luckey said, the Reserve has been able to “essentially outsource many of those things to First Army or to other entities” that would ensure units were fully trained for their missions in combat. “I’m not knocking that. It’s just that that model doesn’t work for what we’re going to have to do next,” he said, pointing to the need for a more efficient, in-house sort of solution for a quicker response to the Regular Army’s needs. Over time, Cold Steel will create “a cadre of noncommissioned officers and commissioned officers who are able to expand the Army Reserve’s capacity to train itself.”
Basic Leadership Oversight
The increased readiness imperative means some soldiers will train more often and spend more time away from family. In the Army Reserve, soldiers may live near their units, but their chain of command, and other units in the command, may be spread across several states. For training in their technical specialty, it works, but Luckey is concerned that there is no “basic leadership oversight” for soldiers’ individual readiness in core competencies and troop leadership procedures, and that families and employers don’t receive needed support to ensure their own readiness.
“There’s nobody physically proximate to that formation day in and day out to do the mentoring, the providing support, providing leadership, providing basics,” Luckey said.
A dispersed Reserve force also inhibits efficient command and control and a clear “geographic battlespace owner” to consolidate soldier programs, such as promotion boards and schools, community support and some regional responsibilities. To illustrate the issue, Luckey described a trip to the Caribbean last year when several Reserve units were on duty under a one-star mission support commander following Hurricane Irma.
Luckey’s responsibility to generate a personnel and equipment accountability report for Army senior leadership was hindered by the fact that the individual specialty units had returned to their functional commands in the U.S. and were not required under the current system to submit status reports to the one-star general.
“I was not about to go ask 12 different organizations to give me their head count,” Luckey said. Instead, he directed the one-star general to be accountable, “and I directed every other command, the functional commands, to support her.” Luckey has begun to formulate some ideas to strengthen regional command authorities and relationships so commanders like the one-star general in the Caribbean can support senior leadership’s requirements more efficiently.
Recruit From Within
Meeting the needs of the Total Army also means upping the Reserve’s game by recruiting the right talent in emerging capabilities that are also the focus of the nation’s adversaries. One of the most visible signs of that effort was the January redesignation of the U.S. Army Reserve 75th Training Command in Houston as the U.S. Army Reserve 75th Innovation Command. The organization’s mission is being refined to “help the Army Reserve think through and operationalize” the search for talent and also support the U.S. Army Futures Command as its requirements emerge.
“This will help leverage or reach into primarily the private sector, but other nonmilitary public sectors as well, to either in many cases retain and in other cases actually recruit the best talent in America when it comes to what I call digital things,” Luckey said.
A selection of forces has since been located in some of 15 newly authorized billets in places like Mountain View, Calif., and Cambridge, Mass., where professionals working in high-tech areas like cyber and artificial intelligence can continue to hone their skills in the civilian world and fall under a regional readiness division. Having Army Reserve soldiers in high-tech industries enables access to professionals who may want to serve in uniform. The new billets also enable the Army Reserve to recruit from within its own ranks. For example, Luckey suggested that a soldier who is in a military police unit, and as a civilian works in the high-tech industry, could be recruited to switch to an assignment in a cyber unit.
“But the next turn of the screw is not just to retain soldiers that are in the Army Reserve and bring them into that sort of niche. It’s also to go out there and find new ones and recruit them in, and that’s a word-of-mouth thing in that industry,” Luckey said.