The U.S. Army Has Embraced "Persistent Conflict"... Has Anyone Informed Congress?

In February 2008, the United States Army Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC) released its update to the Army Field Manual 3-0 (FM 3-0 ), Operations. A distinguishing revision of the updated 2008 FM 3-0 is the characterization of the current security environment as one of persistent conflict — a period of protracted confrontation among states, non-state, and individual actors increasingly willing to use violence to achieve their political and ideological ends. For persistent conflict is to be waged, observers repeatedly note the government will have to marshal “all instruments of national power,” beyond just the military. On this front, the abstract for aligning American diplomatic and economic wherewithal with its military power is establishment of the “interagency” or moving “Beyond Goldwater-Nichols.” While greater inter-agency cooperation or diplomatic-military joint-ness would enhance already estimable national capabilities, such reform would only reinforce the advantages resident in the executive branch regarding the application of U.S. military power. If persistent conflict is indeed the security environment in which U.S. military forces will operate, then complementary engagement on the part of Congress will be necessary to ensure its constitutional prerogatives are maintained. The steady cession of war-making power by Congress to the presidency over the last sixty years is well documented and beyond the scope of this essay.* Instead, two other potential areas for reform – reserve component mobilization and overseas basing – provide suitable venues for Congress to re-assert its stake in national security decision-making.

I. Reserve Component Mobilization

After the activation and mobilization of approximately 590,000 reservists for counter-terrorism operations since 2001 and a commitment of an estimated 63 million manpower days in fiscal year 2006 alone, the nation continues to operate under reserve mobilization authorities enacted during the Truman Administration. During the Korean War, the active force’s un-preparedness necessitated a massive mobilization of the Army Reserve, which was composed of World War II veterans. The difficulties encountered spurred Congress to pass legislation establishing the modern service reserve components as well as the below mobilization authorities:

10 U.S.C. 12301(d) “Full Mobilization”


Declared by Congress

In time of war or national emergency



10 U.S.C. 12302 “Partial Mobilization”


Declared by the President:

In time of national emergency


730 days /

24 consecutive months

10 U.S.C. 12304 “Presidential Reserve Call-up”


Determined by the President:

To augment the active duty force for operational missions


365 days /

12 consecutive months

After the Korean War, for most of the Cold War, the importance of the reserve components diminished, largely due to the reliance on conscription and also because nation kept a large standing military for the first time in history. During the Vietnam War, reservists were not used extensively, given the availability of draftees. However, the widespread public revulsion with the war led the nation to establish the all-volunteer force. While gains were marked in terms of readiness and addressed the opposition to the draft, the change required greater budgetary outlays to pay the “higher price” associated with attracting higher quality recruits and augmenting the civilian workforce to support it. To capitalize on the economy of force offered by a greater reliance on reserve components, the Department of Defense embraced the Total Force concept, which augmented the role played by reservists in operational plans, beginning the component’s transition from a strategic reserve to an operational one.

Immediately, the latitude granted to the executive branch under these authorities is apparent. Under 12302 and 12304, the president has wide discretion to access up to 1,000,000 reservists for a period of up to 24 months. President George H.W. Bush exercised presidential reserve call-up authority in 1990 and 1991** to mobilize reservists for the defense of Saudi Arabia and the subsequent liberation of Kuwait. However, the occurrence of the 100 hour ground war in February 1991 foreclosed the need for extensive reserve participation. President Clinton continued implementing reserve mobilizations under 12304 for operations in the Balkans, but at much lower numbers. In both cases, substantial participation by the reserve component did not occur and presidential access to the reserves, in cases of emergency or at only minimal levels, seemed justified.

The shortcoming of current authorities became evident in the military’s most recent experience with reserve mobilization for the global war on terrorism. In September 2001, President George W. Bush broke with its previous pattern of invoking successive authorities by invoking a partial mobilization authority without a prior presidential reserve call-up. Moreover, the Department of Defense’s innovation was to interpret the 24 month limit as a cumulative maximum. According to Department of Defense guidance, a reservist would serve no more than 24 months cumulatively. However, coinciding guidance also stated no reservist would undertake more than one involuntary activation; moreover, this involuntary mobilization could only be for 12 months. In practice, reservists would complete 3 months of pre-deployment training, deploy for 12 months, return for a 3 month pre-deployment period and then demobilize.

The resulting 18 month duty left 6 months on the 24 month “clock” unused. When U.S. forces realized a longer fight against Iraqi insurgents was imminent, DOD leadership clung to lower force commitments and had two equally unpalatable alternatives. One, DOD could re-deploy active duty forces which had just completed service only earlier before, and two, aggressively seek volunteer reservists to supplement the beleaguered active duty force. DOD opted for both. Multiple deployments increased for active Army forces and volunteer reservists were heavily induced with bonuses. Repeated internal studies and memoranda touted volunteers as the solution, while dismissing the alternatives such as accessing Individual Ready Reservists or expanding the overall force.

Further complicating the situation was the manner in which reserve units had been historically maintained at a lower level of readiness, especially in terms of personnel. As the strategic reserve, reserve units were kept below optimal personnel levels. When the war in Iraq lasted longer than anticipated and DOD leadership wanted to tap additional reserve units, under-filled units had to be supplemented by individual volunteers from elsewhere. This process, called “cross-leveling,” solved the manpower problem but undermined unit cohesion. In hearings held by the Commission on the National Guard and Reserve (CNGR ), one reservist characterized cross-leveling as “evil.”

The matter pitted DOD leadership, which presented volunteerism as a success, against the services, which steadily grew concerned about the deleterious effect on unit cohesion. By December 2004, Lt. Gen. James R. Helmly, Chief of the Army Reserve, was stirred to issue his now famous memorandum warning of the component’s growing “inability… to meet mission requirements” as well as the “grave danger… [of] rapidly degenerating into a ‘broken’ force.”

Congress was impotent in the matter, capable of only holding hearings and criticizing the Administration for its mismanagement of the war. Congress possessed no mechanism for correcting the Administration’s implementation of the mobilization authorities. Its investigative arm, the Government Accountability Office (GAO ), issued consecutive reports criticizing DOD for departing from progressive and planned mobilization and cited the need for improvements in mobilization as well as a plan for achieving a more strategic incorporation of the reserve into war plans, but the Department ignored the recommendations.

After Donald Rumsfeld resigned, the incoming secretary, Robert Gates, immediately modified force utilization policy to mandate the mobilization of reserve on a unit basis. Moreover, Gates directed the services to limit reserve mobilization to 12 consecutive months at a time, with a goal of minimizing future deployments to once every five years. The GAO again weighed in on the matter, concluding the new policies provided a “long-term approach for meeting requirements,” even though the policies also left virtually all reserve component personnel available on an indefinitely recurrent basis.

Left unstated was the fact that neither under Rumsfeld nor Gates did the Department implement mobilization authority as enumerated by Congress. While each interpretation established limits less than the 24 months delineated under partial mobilization authority, neither interpretation was implemented in a manner where plans and mobilizations were based on the 24 consecutive month timetable. DOD’s implementation provided for either very finite access or infinite access to reservists; the 24 month limitation was neither utilized to its fullest extent under Rumself nor was it adhered to as a restriction under Gates’s new guidance. The final report of the CNGR observed as much, noting “mobilization statutes provide no effective limitation on the number and duration of mobilizations under a partial mobilization.”

Congress enacted the statutes when the leadership anticipated any partial mobilization would have to be progressively followed by full mobilization. As observed in the current counter-insurgency, continuous access to reservists will be necessary, but full mobilization is not. Moreover, restricting the length of mobilizations or mandating a specific amount of “dwell time” may similarly be unworkable and would still absolve the executive branch from sustaining the endorsement of Congress for what is now described as a persistent conflict.

As the considerable coverage of the war’s fifth anniversary has shown, the combination of conducting a war just below full mobilization for a number of years without a foreseeable resolution in sight will exact an enormous price in terms of resources and manpower, as well as tax the patience of the electorate. The Democratic Party won the 2006 mid-term congressional elections because of public opposition to the war as well as the Republican caucus’s complicity in permitting the Bush Administration a free (and glaringly incompetent) hand in the matter. But neither has the Democratic majority been able to curtail the Administration's freedom to act.

One plausible modification to partial mobilization authority would entail mandating minimum and maximum access intervals (say no less than 9 months, no more than 18 months) as well as requesting congressional for successive rounds of mobilizations thereafter. (The initial access to reservists could still be triggered by a presidential declaration of emergency.) If such a new persistent mobilization authority had been in place during the current war, congressional authority would have been enhanced vis-à-vis the executive branch as to the length and depth with which the reserve components would be utilized, and by extension, the capacity of the executive branch to conduct a long war without a congressional declaration.

II. Overseas Commitments

In the case of overseas basing, Congress retains substantial authority via its responsibility for approving bilateral access agreements and military construction budgets. From the end of the Second World War and the Korean War through September 11, the executive branch determined the location and depth of U.S. overseas commitments, but given the early bipartisan consensus at the outset of this period, American garrisoning in Western Europe and Eastern Asia was un-controversial. The Department of Defense committed substantial resources and infrastructure into other regions of the world, such as Southeast Asia, but nothing as extensive or enduring as the previously mentioned locales.

Ironically, the initial departure from the focus on Europe and Asia came with the establishment of the Rapid Deployment Force in the late 1970s. Initially conceived as an emergency measure for projecting US influence into the Middle East, the commitment eventually matured into the U.S. Central Command, now the geographic locus of America’s current fight. In the present day, the Unified Command Plan now spans the globe and DOD has just established a further demarcation of responsibility by setting up the Africa Command.

Growing skepticism over Bush Administration aims in Iraq has been heightened by the recently concluded bilateral agreement to establish a strategic relationship, which a key official has asserted does not require congressional approval. Congress has repeatedly requested greater detail on the scope of US global basing plans, and, in numerous instances, communicated its opposition to permanent bases in Iraq. Unfortunately, Congress has mismanaged the issue by creating a significant loophole in military construction appropriations law. In 2004, Congress expanded the use of military construction funding by allowing its expenditure for permanent as well as temporary structures, “without regard to the duration of operational control.”

While Congress took the action to prevent DOD from utilizing other appropriations accounts, namely operations and maintenance, to pay for major construction in Afghanistan and Iraq, the provision allowed DOD to continue asserting any construction in these war zones as temporary, no matter how seemingly permanent they were in terms of materials, purpose, or projected stay. Accordingly, DOD has allocated billions for infrastructure in Afghanistan and Iraq since 2003, but the department will categorically state there are permanent U.S. bases in either of those two nations, despite the investment, the likelihood tens of thousands of American forces will be stationed there for the near to medium term, and the criticality of maintaining a presence in the region should hostilities end.

Moreover, DOD has incorporated these military construction projects into their supplemental funding requests to Congress, not the annually submitted base budget requests. DOD’s rationale is the contingency nature of the commitment – U.S. forces have been committed per the president’s declaration of a national emergency and identifying coinciding resource requirements into the future is not possible. In the first years of the overseas operations, this may have been a plausible argument; however, with each succeeding year, DOD civilian and military leadership are increasingly communicating the probable need for a sustained presence in the near term.

The Global War on Terrorism has become the Long War and, as noted above, in doctrinal terms, the environment has been termed one of persistent conflict. Here, GAO’s observations were on the mark. In July 2006, Comptroller General David Walker testified “once an operation reaches a known level of effort and costs are more predictable, more funding should be built into the baseline budget,” and, as such, DOD should consider transferring ongoing operational costs into the annually submitted base budget.

The opportunity to rein in DOD in regard to overseas basing could begin with re-designating military construction appropriations as the funding source for only major permanent construction and requiring the department to submit military construction requests for any locations deemed essential to the overall global defense posture as part of the base budget request.

The Department of Defense laid out its plans to revise the nation’s overseas footprint in a September 2004 report to Congress, which identified three tiers of bases going into the future. Main operating bases would feature permanently stationed combat forces and robust infrastructure. Forward operating sites would be expandable “warm facilities” maintained with a limited rotational U.S. military support presence and possibly pre-positioned equipment. Lastly, cooperative security locations entailed little to no U.S. presence and would provide contingency access while being a focal point for security cooperation activities.

DOD updates its plan on a combatant command basis and has submitted them to Congress. Except these plans are classified. Well, they’re supposed to be classified. A close review (page 3!) of the U.S. Army Fiscal Year 2008 military construction budget justification materials reveals that Bagram, Afghanistan is designated as a forward operating site and must be able to surge to meet theater contingency requirements, while also providing for a long term steady state presence. Of the approximately $1.1 billion requested for military construction in Afghanistan between 2003 and now, more than 60 percent has been designated for projects at Bagram, Afghanistan.

Continuing to justify the request of supplemental funding for such projects because they are "contingency," strains credulity; delineating how DOD will request funding for overseas basing in the base budget will foster greater transparency regarding the costs of the war and provide Congress with an venue for greater oversight of over where DOD is planning to commit America in the future.

III. Conclusion

In combination, Congressional action on reserve component mobilization and military construction appropriations would constitute a suitable course of action for re-establishing legislative prerogatives vis-à-vis an executive branch with substantial advantages when it comes to war-making in the modern world.

The Founding Fathers feared the threat posed by a large standing army to democracy, but did not naively believe the time might arrive when America would stand taller than it did in 1787, and thus the wise foresight in making the elected office of the presidency home to the role of commander-in-chief, ensuring civilian control of the military. From the first years through the beginning of the Cold War, the balance between the executive and legislative branches was fairly stable. The assumption of leadership of the free world and the advent of nuclear weapons created an imbalance in favor of the presidency, and perhaps, given the rapidly collapsing time frames available to decision-makers in modern warfare, rightfully so.

However, the ready stance maintained during the Cold War vigil has been succeeded by persistent conflict, where U.S. forces are unhesitatingly being committed across the globe without so much as a resolution on the part of the citizenry's representatives in Washington. Permitting such a "revolutionary departure" from the past would further upend the delicate constitutional balance this nation has relied on to preserve its fundamental democratic nature.

* The experience of the nation’s last counter-insurgency fight rears its head. After the Vietnam War, Congress clumsily attempted to remedy the situation with the War Powers Act. Amidst a Cold War where hardening partisan ideological differences continued to solidify their hold on opposing branches of government, the War Powers Act only resulted in a Democratic Congress fighting a rearguard action against a Republican President determined to act freely. Accordingly, normal debates over major foreign policy endeavors would devolve into major institutional turf wars over each branch’s constitutional prerogatives abroad. See Lebanon, El Salvador, Iran-Contra, Libya, and Panama. Finally, when a congressional endorsement was sought, as in the case of the Persian Gulf War in 1991 or the invasion of Iraq in 2003, the Administration requested a resolution instead of a declaration of war. However, the congressional votes on the resolution became a litmus test for demonstrating credibility on national security affairs, rather than the appropriateness of military action against another state.

** In 1991, the length of mobilizations was limited to 270 consecutive days or 9 consecutive months.

Works Referenced:

Commission on the National Guard and Reserve, Final Report

Congressional Research Service

  1. 04/11/05 Memorandum on Military Construction in Afghanistan and Iraq

Government Accountability Office

  1. 08/21/03 GAO-03-921 Military Personnel: DOD Actions Needed to Improve the Efficiency of Mobilizations for Reserve Forces

  2. 09/15/04 GAO-04-1031 Military Personnel: DOD Needs to Address Long-term Reserve Force Availability and Related Mobilization and Demobilization Issues

  3. 07/18/06 GAO-06-885T Global War on Terrorism: Observations on Funding, Costs, and Future Commitments

  4. 09/05/06 GAO-06-962 Force Structure: DOD Needs to Integrate Data into Its Force Identification Process and Examine Options to Meet Requirements for High-Demand Support Forces

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