Reversibility in the Army…What Next?

On December 9th, Bryan Rozman posted a piece titled, “Reversibility in the Army: More than Industrial Age Conscription.” In the post, Rozman argues that a precondition for integrating reversibility into an Army strategy is acknowledging that conscription is no longer a practicable way to reverse cuts in manpower. Bryan then lays out an interesting case for why he thinks conscription clouds discussions about cutting Army manpower, an argument that is sure to generate some discussion.

What is of real interest in Rozman’s blog piece is his proposal that reversibility should be a deliberate Army process. This is a point I want to draw out more fully in this post.

As Rozman’s post notes, the 2012 Defense Strategic Guidance clearly integrates the concept of reversibility into the defense strategy. More recent defense documents either explicitly or implicitly underscore the importance of the reversibility concept but provide no meaningful direction on how the Army or other Services might integrate reversibility into their institutional strategies. Stepping back for a second, the reason for the silence becomes apparent: with a modest exception eight years ago, the Army has been steadily losing manpower for more than 20 years. The military, and specifically the Army, has little practical experience with reversing cuts to end strength. Arguably, the last real lesson the Army had in reversibility was during the Korean War.

So, with little practical experience in reversibility, the first order of business for Army leaders is to have the Army staff access what few contemporary lessons are available — the 2006 Grow The Army (GTA) effort comes to mind — and plumb those lessons to understand every possible contemporary opportunity, constraint, and limitation. Even a perfunctory look at reversibility highlights challenges not anticipated by the authors of the 2012 DSG, because it turns out that quickly reversing long-running manpower cuts isn’t simply mobilization or recruiting on steroids. Two examples draw out the wicked nature of the trades the Army’s leaders might have to make to quickly increase the size of the Service’s ranks:

  • Mobilization: The defense strategy laid out in the 2014 QDR underscores the importance of resourcing Homeland defense. As planned, this mission will largely be tackled by Federalized Army National Guard soldiers. The problem is that almost any Homeland defense scenario also necessitates a robust local response by policemen, firefighters, and other first responders — men and women who constitute a welcome, but outsized proportion of the Guard’s ranks. Moreover, a Federal mobilization could stymie a governor’s ability to pull together a state-level response using National Guard troops operating under Title 32 authorities. Because Federal mobilization could cannibalize local and state responses, it is not clear that the Federal government can automatically rely on mobilization as a mechanism to reverse manpower cuts.
  • Recruiting: It turns out there are some limits that have evolved in the demography and economy of 21st century America. Because we have moved to a volunteer force, these limits appear to constrain greatly how quickly, and ultimately how many soldiers the Army can recruit. Moreover, pushing past these demographic and economic limits mean that it quickly becomes very expensive for the Army to recruit much beyond current replacement levels.

The challenge with both of these tools, mobilization and recruiting, is that no one really knows exactly where the friction and stopping points are if the Army had to grow substantially larger in a short period of time. Yes, a small group of experienced folks has a rough idea of where the Army might run into some challenges trying to reverse manpower cuts, but many of these experts’ assessments have baked in assumptions about the economy, domestic political support, and other factors. Thus, answering the first order of business — really understanding every possible opportunity, constraint, and limitation to reversibility — will likely be more challenging than Army and DoD leaders have previously assumed.

Pushing past the knowledge gap, how would the Army build a reversibility component into its institutional strategy? This brings me back to Bryan Rozman’s article. Rozman writes, “Reversibility should not be seen as a one-way pipeline to getting larger quickly in an emergency. It is an integrated process of policy and structural levers that maximizes our access to human capital, trained or otherwise.” Put more forcefully, a process that manages reversibility must be part of the Army’s organizational DNA.

Over the last fifty years Army leaders have developed mechanisms to tackle resourcing, manage change, account for property, report readiness and myriad other functions. With more than 20+ years of steadily declining manpower, it has come time for Army leaders to figure out how to manage reversibility. And while the 2012 Defense Strategic Guidance explicitly integrates the concept into the defense strategy, for the Army leadership the most compelling reason to develop a mechanism to manage reversibility is that it will be a key tool in understanding just how exposed to risk the Service is.

Jeff Hannon, a U.S. Army officer. The views expressed here are the author’s alone and do not reflect those of the U.S. Army or the Department of Defense.

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Header photo: Army Col. Garrett Yee speaks to soldiers of the 1398th Deployment and Distribution Support Battalion Jan. 13, prior to the unit’s deployment in support of Operation Enduring Freedom | Photo by 1st. Lt. Furaha Mujacera