A Culture Shift Toward Combat: Army Reserve Evolves to Face Near-Peer Threat
A culture shift driven by the new threat environment, along with improvements in medical readiness, reductions in the number of nondeployable soldiers and a purposeful focus on fostering a warrior culture, have pushed the U.S. Army Reserve to achieve heightened readiness, its top officer says.
In the more than three years since he took the reins of the Army Reserve, Lt. Gen. Charles D. Luckey said, the federal force has “pushed hard” to change from an organization accustomed to fairly predictable deployment schedules and long mobilization lead times to one whose capacity to surge more quickly will be tested before long in a deadlier war against a near-peer adversary.
The Army Reserve, he said, “is in a different posture.”
“I think it’s more ready, I think it’s focused and has an appreciation for the notion that readiness is job one, that we’ve moved into a new era that requires us to think differently about what it means to have a ready force,” said Luckey, a former Green Beret who has been chief of the Army Reserve and commanding general of the U.S. Army Reserve Command since June 30, 2016.
“We have certainly changed the conversation in the Army Reserve and in the Army about what this component should be able to and can contribute to a great-power competition,” he said.
Some units have embraced the new conversation more than others, he said, and some leaders have been more accepting than others. But Luckey believes that, while there is still more to be done, change is taking hold.
“Driving significant, sustainable, pervasive cultural change in an organization of some 200,000 soldiers and civilians spread across 20 time zones and 350,000 family members is hard work and requires a lot of things, to include energy and relentless enthusiasm,” Luckey said. “I think we have pushed very, very hard.”
When he took command, he said, “we were still focused on episodic rotational deployments; then we started talking about combat readiness, capability and lethality.” Many Reservists balked from the start at the focus on lethality because “it was, frankly, not [a word] that was being used even inside the Department of Defense to anywhere near the degree that it’s being used today.”
Luckey said he was questioned about his emphasis on the word “lethal” and why the Army Reserve should strive to be that when, rather than providing a combat force, it is the component that supplies about 78% of the Total Army’s sustainment capabilities.
“There’s nothing wrong with [that characterization], but it isn’t the sum total of what we need an Army to be able to do by a long shot,” he said.
Enemy Is Watching
Acknowledging pockets of doubt in his force about the need for a more lethal Army Reserve, Luckey recognizes that a perceived calm in U.S. national security has set in because there is no visible high-intensity fight going on. But he cautioned that as a component of the most powerful military in the world, the Army Reserve is being watched by the enemy as closely as any other part of the service.
He pointed to the quick response of the Army Reserve in domestic natural disasters, including in 2017 when Houston suffered devastating floods caused by Hurricane Harvey. The ability of the Army Reserve to mobilize resources to that mission within 24 hours, he said, “should show adversaries how ready we are.”
“The more the Army Reserve is able to demonstrate, not just talk about, but demonstrate its ability to be a part of the total force and generate that pretty quickly, which we can do, adds to deterrence.”
Asserting that the Army Reserve’s heightened readiness adds something to the posture of a million-person Army, instead of the notion that operations revolve around 500,000 active-duty troops, he said, “becomes one more reason why nobody wants to mess with the United States in a significant military competition.”
In High Demand
After close to 20 years in a fight where the Reserve’s resources were forward-postured and rotations predictable, Luckey foresees a coming fight that will require the Army Reserve to have an expeditionary mindset and be able to “surge [a] massive amount of capability” in as quickly as 30 to 90 days to support the Regular Army.
A future rebalancing of the Army Reserve may even see some of the component’s high-demand capabilities move into the Regular Army. While the possibility of such a plan is nascent and such capabilities have not been definitively identified, he said, “I’m very comfortable [saying] that I think this is a conversation worth having.”
In the meantime, more Army Reserve soldiers and units continue to be exposed to individual and collective training opportunities and experiences than ever. In the past two years, thousands of soldiers in hundreds of units have rotated through joint and combined training events at Fort McCoy, Wisconsin; Fort Hunter Liggett, California; Fort Knox, Kentucky; and Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, New Jersey.
It’s part of Ready Force X (RFX), a plan Luckey created to boost readiness and instill a warrior mindset in the Army Reserve’s highest-demand combat support and combat service support MOSs. One-third of the force is directly impacted by RFX, Luckey said, including engineers, military police, medical personnel and those in other capabilities such as communications, cyber, transportation and aviation.
With RFX, soldiers who haven’t had weapons training since basic training because their MOS or skill didn’t require it are taking part in exercises such as Cold Steel, now in its third year, and short-notice deployment rehearsals. Such exercises are aimed at reinforcing broad operational tenets, unit cohesion and core soldier competencies, including firing crew-served weapons and launching grenades. The results, Luckey said, “have been impactful.”
“We have more gunners and assistant gunners qualified, more vehicle evaluators [and] master gunners trained,” Luckey said. But the big payoff has been “the number of NCOs and junior officers who have for the first time operated weapons and then taught soldiers how to do it.”
RFX has infused an ethos of being a ready warrior “as opposed to mobilize, deploy to [a] theater of operations for nine months to a year, come back and then basically go back into dwell for four years. That’s not what we’re talking about,” Luckey said.
Building the Force
Adding to the Army Reserve’s readiness is an improvement in soldiers’ medical readiness, meaning more soldiers are making medical and dental appointments and checking personal readiness blocks required for deployment.
A Pentagon policy that went into effect in fiscal 2019 authorizes commanders to begin administrative separation for soldiers who are not deployable for 12 consecutive months or for 12 months during an 18-month span.
The Army identified missed medical appointments as one of the top reasons soldiers were unable to deploy. It was hurting readiness and causing the same soldiers to deploy repeatedly to make up for the shortfall.
Recent figures released by the Army’s deputy chief of staff for personnel indicate as many as 15% of soldiers across the Army’s active and reserve components were unable to deploy 18 months ago, a number that is currently down to about 5%.
In the Army Reserve, more than 10% of soldiers were deemed nondeployable 18 months ago, a figure that is down to 8.4% today, Luckey said.
Ready and Balanced
As he enters the final year of his four-year assignment as chief of the Army Reserve, Luckey said he is satisfied that he and his team have left a process in place for the Army Reserve’s senior leadership that ensures a clear understanding of the risks to mission and the force associated with pushing the component’s level of readiness too far.
“As I’ve said before, we have to be ready enough to maintain relevance to the joint warfighter and the Army, but we can’t be so ready that we can’t keep good, meaningful civilian jobs and healthy, sustaining family lives,” Luckey said. “I think there is a significant change in the Army Reserve’s view of itself as an integral part of the Total Army to fight and win a major war, but you can’t push too hard.”
Maintaining that balance, he said, means answering questions from employers and families and explaining what it takes to meet the requirement to stay ready.
“There is a chorus of folks out there who want to know, ‘When is this going to stop?’ ‘How much longer do we have to share [our soldiers]?’ And the answer is, probably for a long time, because the requirement is to stay ready,” Luckey said.
Some of Luckey’s previous assignments, such as chief of the Office of Security Cooperation in Baghdad and chief of staff at the North American Aerospace Defense Command and the U.S. Northern Command, were jobs he characterized as “a lot of fun” compared to the demands of leading the Army Reserve.
“When I look back on it, it may end up being the most fun thing I ever did, extraordinarily demanding, but rewarding and fulfilling,” Luckey said of his current assignment. “I remind the senior leadership of the Army Reserve that, at the end of the day, we are working for [soldiers], not the other way around, and hopefully that ethos is becoming infused in the culture of this component.