The head of the Army Reserve, complaining about recent strains on his force and what he says are overly permissive personnel rules, warned top brass in December that the 200,000 soldiers under his command are “rapidly degenerating into a ’broken’ force.” About 40 percent of soldiers in Iraq are so-called weekend warriors. That figure includes members of the Army Reserve and the National Guard. What’s the difference between the two?
The reserves and National Guard make up about 45 percent of the military’s total manpower and are divided into seven branches: The Army, Navy, Marines, Air Force, and Coast Guard each have their own dedicated reserve force. Then there is the Air National Guard and Army National Guard.
The Army and other reserves are always under the president’s control. Not so with National Guard units. Though the federal government picks up much of the bill, both Air Force and Army National Guard units are assigned to and primarily controlled by states, which actually gives them greater freedom on the home front. The Posse Comitatus Act makes it illegal for troops to enforce civilian laws but doesn’t apply to soldiers serving states. Governors can and frequently do call up National Guard troops to serve as kind of adjunct police (as, for instance, when National Guardsmen are asked to enforce curfews after hurricanes).
National Guard units can be federalized by the president should he declare a national emergency, as President Bush did with a partial mobilization after 9/11. The president has relied on that same emergency declaration to keep National Guard units available for Iraq. When such an order is given, the part-timers, who normally train one weekend a month and two additional weeks per year, can be called to duty for two-year stints, a timeframe the Army is now considering lengthening. (Soldiers usually don’t serve anywhere near that long when working for governors.) The federal government can go one step further: A full mobilization can happen if Congress declares a national emergency. If such a situation occurs, soldiers can be required to serve for “length of the emergency plus six months.”
The part-time soldiers of the Army Reserve can also be tossed into active duty for the same amount of time. That’s not the only similarity between the reserves and the National Guard forces. There are frequent complaints from both about second-rate equipment. And then there’s the echoing language. About a month before the Army’s Reserve’s commander warned of the possibility of “a broken force,” the Guard’s top commander warned that unless something is done to alleviate the strain on his forces, the “Guard will be broken and not ready the next time it’s needed, either here at home or for war.”
Explainer thanks Army Reserve spokesman Maj. Michael Stella, and reader Thomas McDonald for asking the question.