Mobilization – the process by which selected portions of the U.S. Armed Forces are brought to a state of readiness for war – no longer operates effectively to meet the volume and speed required in modern war.

Today the United States Army is the finest and most capable fighting force the world has ever seen.  However, an outstanding military is not effective if it is not there to affect the outcome. The United States is running a high risk that it may lose in a major theater war because it cannot mobilize and deploy the Army quickly enough.

Given the tremendous experience and expertise that our Army has demonstrated over the past three decades, Americans might ask “How could this be possible?” It is the result of four contributing factors: 1) the changing character of war; 2) a smaller Army that has moved from being forward stationed to rotational; 3) the Army’s increasing reliance on its Reserve Component as an operational force; and 4) a mismatch between the character of war today and the Army’s approach to generating and deploying forces to war.

The character of modern war continues to evolve in both complexity and intensity, a challenge which requires much more from a significantly smaller U.S.-based Army. Due to several years of sequestration and recent force reductions, today’s Army relies more than ever on its Reserve Component (RC) – the Army National Guard and Army Reserve – to enable our Joint Force to fight and win a high-end conventional war against a global peer nation-state or prolonged threats from a rogue regional power. The National Commission on the Future of the Army got it right when it noted in its final report that the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff  highlighted that our nation was accepting risk in the capacity of U.S. land forces in the 2014 Quadrennial Defense Review. The Commission recommended that the Secretary of Defense plan and conduct a comprehensive review of the nation’s ability to mobilize its existing reserves as well as its preparedness for the potential of national mobilization.   It is imperative to evaluate the ability of the Total Army – the Regular Army plus the Army National Guard and Army Reserve – to do just exactly this – to significantly improve its capability and capacity to mobilize quickly and deploy trained and ready forces.

The problem is that mobilization – the process by which selected portions of the U.S. Armed Forces are brought to a state of readiness for war – no longer operates effectively to meet the volume and speed required in modern war.  Army leaders at all levels are now focused on developing a new force generation capability that achieves and sustains a high level of unit readiness throughout the force. An army whose active and reserve forces are continuously ready for combat is an effective tool for assuring allies and deterring or defeating adversaries. But readiness is not enough. No matter how ready this U.S.-stationed land force is, the nation will not prevail in war unless it can promptly and effectively mobilize and deploy the Army to meet war plan requirements that essentially call for up to five times as many reserve component units to mobilize in half the time that the nation has required in the post-9/11 era.

Potential U.S. adversaries pay attention to U.S. military capability and capacity. If the U.S. has a prolonged mobilization timeline, a smart strategy for a nation wishing to secure regional interests contrary to U.S. interests is to do it fast: achieve your military objectives, and disrupt political systems and national cohesion, all before the U.S.-based forces arrive, thereby confronting them with a fait accompli. War is becoming faster, more violent, and more complex, and it is increasing in scope and scale across all domains, including cyberspace. All of this supports a strategy enabled by speed of tailoring, expansion, and deployment. For example, the 2014 crisis in Ukraine demonstrated how Russia’s use of its new-generation warfare that relied on quick actions by uniformed and civilian-clad troops supported by advanced technology, proved devastating and decisive in seizing the Crimea and stripping away key eastern regions from Ukrainian control.

Few things spread faster than good ideas. Seeing that such approaches work, future adversaries are likely to employ similar ones to quickly secure their regional interests. How is the Army preparing for this? It is currently focused on “Multi-Domain Battle,” a concept that seeks for ground combat forces to outmaneuver adversaries both physically and cognitively across all domains.  However, Multi-Domain Battle ignores the mobilization problem, concerning itself with the operational and tactical actions in a theater of war. It assumes away the mobilization actions that moved those forces into place.

The U.S. and its allies no longer have the time to mobilize methodically, nor do they have the opportunity to recover from a slow start as was the case in many earlier wars.

A nation that does not have trained and ready forces in place at the start of a war has historically used three different strategies to give itself time to recover from an initial disadvantage. First, if it has strategic depth it can accept defeat in early battles, and in later battles retake what it lost. This was the U.S. strategy in the Pacific War in World War II. A second strategy is to rely on allies to hold the line while the nation gets ready for war, preserving a foothold for deployment into theater. This was the U.S.’s European strategy in World War II and (with some exceptions) World War I. The final strategy involves using well-trained but inadequate (in either numbers or capability) forces at the start of the war, relying on them to hold or slow an adversary to create time and space for mobilized forces to arrive. This was the U.S.’s strategy for fighting a (thankfully hypothetical) Soviet-led invasion of NATO nations.

Of the three approaches, only the third involved a rapid, planned mobilization, but it also relied on significant numbers of forward-stationed U.S. forces, something the United States no longer has.

Given the accelerating speed of war and the limits on U.S. force posture, it seems that none of the three strategies described above will work. The U.S. and its allies no longer have the time to mobilize methodically, nor do they have the opportunity to recover from a slow start as was the case in many earlier wars. The U.S. must innovate in how it mobilizes forces, obtaining a competitive advantage in delivering forces to theater in time to make a difference. The Army’s next first battle could be disastrous and unrecoverable if ready units cannot reach decisive overseas areas in the limited time demanded by Combatant Commanders.

This faster pace of waging war is even more challenging when we consider that the smaller, American-based Total Army of just over one million soldiers is comprised of 53% Reserve Component and only 47% regular Army, or active, soldiers. The smallest regular Army in many decades is weighted toward combat-arms forces, but our future war plans demand significant early-entry, “set-the-theater for war” capabilities provided by Reserve Component combat support and service support units.  Citizen-Soldiers in these reserve units will need to leave their civilian jobs quickly to be mobilized and put in place overseas within days rather than months. To provide this significant surge capacity to counter full-spectrum threats, the Army Reserve is now focused on developing 25,000 to 33,000 soldiers in key enabling units it calls “Ready Force X” that can deploy to the fight in a matter of days and weeks.

During the past 15 years of preparing rotational forces for Iraq and Afghanistan, the Army mobilization system has devolved into a “Patch Chart” system of scheduled mobilizations, known well in advance, that provides smaller units of brigade-sized elements of 3,500 soldiers and below.  In this predictable, controlled approach the Army has lost much of its expertise, capability, and capacity to mobilize large-scale forces for a major contingency, such as in North Korea or Europe, where strategic and operational success depend on quickly projecting sufficient power into a contested environment.  The solution is not merely a math problem – it is about leadership, planning, energy, and execution in projecting an American-based Army overseas quickly to where our Combatant Commanders need it.  To solve this problem, the Army must understand and improve mobilization as a “system of systems.”

Mobilization is a complex, time-sensitive system of systems with many participants and activities. It involves the assembly and organization of resources from twelve interdependent resource areas, including manpower, facilities, training base, transportation, and materiel/equipment. Activities occurring in any one area influence others. For example, activating additional manpower may generate requirements for additional facilities, equipment, training base capacity, and transportation. Sources of facilities include all the installations (forts, camps, posts, and centers) where troops are received, trained, equipped, and prepare to deploy.  Mobilization Force Generation Installations (MFGIs) are key installations for any army mobilization.  MFGIs are designated to provide mobilization support to both known rotational demands and also contingency operations.  In 2008 the Army operated ten MFGIs to support operations that were mostly focused in Iraq and Afghanistan. Right now only Fort Hood and Fort Bliss operate as a MFGI, which is optimized for steady-state rotational demands.  However, these mobilization platforms are too few and woefully inadequate to support the volume and speed needed for a major theater of war contingency. In the short term, the Army is mitigating strategic risks by rotating brigade combat teams from the U.S. to forward positions in Korea and Germany, positioning equipment sets overseas, and conducting deployment exercises like “Saber Guardian” in Romania.  These well-planned rotational deployments and exercises are necessary practice for our units.  However, they are not sufficient for the nation to respond to a contingency or national emergency that requires a Total Army capability to mobilize quickly and fight against technologically-advanced forces.

In conjunction with enhancing its mobilization capacity, the Army must also do more now to mitigate this strategic risk.  It needs to address directly mobilization for a major theater war, and designate one of its major commands to lead this effort.  The Army has identified 20 Army Warfighting Challenges (AWFCs) in the current and future operating environment that it needs to overcome to “Win in a Complex World.”  While these AWFCs are “enduring first order problems” for which the Army is developing solutions to improve current and future force combat effectiveness, mobilization is noticeably absent from this list.

Mobilization is in fact a first order problem, principally because in time of major theater war it is the essential first step needed to access over half of the Army’s strength that resides in the Reserve Component.  Therefore, it is imperative that the Army add “Mobilize the Force” as an AWFC. Doing so will focus Army efforts on holistically analyzing all mobilization resource challenges so that senior civilian and military leaders can better understand, visualize, describe, and implement the mobilization system needed to meet the speed of war today.  Last, the Army also needs to designate a major command, like U.S. Army Forces Command, to lead this effort, with the result most likely being the creation of a mobilization plan that can support a major war.

Today’s gap between the Department of Defense’s contingency planning demands and our military capacity to rapidly prepare and deploy essential forces will continue to grow unless the nation can more rapidly mobilize the Army.  Given the nation’s fiscal outlook, relying on a smaller, U.S.-based Army that depends increasingly on Reserve Component forces is a necessary but risky approach.  Given the changing character of war, in which regional threats will require the quick arrival of major combat forces, the U.S. cannot rely on old strategies for managing this risk. The Army must support a community of innovation in mobilization so that it can rapidly prepare and deploy the Army forces required to fight and win a major theater war.


Major General Joseph E. Whitlock currently serves as the Director of Army Protection at Headquarters, Department of the Army. This article was developed from a paper written as part of the Army Strategic Education Program – Advanced Course. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

Photo: U.S. Army Sgt. Chris D. Martinez, a truck driver with the 2220th Transportation Company, Arizona National Guard, guides a Palletized Loading System truck into a staging area near Winnemucca, Nev., on July 9, 2012. Soldiers with the unit, based in Tucson, Ariz., were participating in Operation Golden Cargo, a nationwide logistics exercise for reserve military components.

Photo Credit: U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Gary A. Witte, 300th Mobile Public Affairs Detachment

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  1. I really like the idea of Mobilize the force as an AWfC. Reason, as all other AWfCs affect a substantial function (in both numbers and capabilities) for the Army’s fight, mobilize the force affect 53% of the force.

  2. MG Whitlock does a great job at outlining the mobilization issue from the Army’s perspective. As the Army is assuming risk mobilizing the Reserve Component (specifically the Army National Guard and Army Reserve) at the volume and speed for modern warfare. Historically, the US grows and deploys its Army for expeditionary actions after the fact in most cases. Two critical points to consider when fixing the Army’s mobilization problem. First as Congress has the authority to raise an Army and the power of the purse. Second, the Abrams Doctrine intent was to place the logistics and sustainment units in the Reserve Component (53% of the total Army) not by happenstance. As the time to raise the Army and appropriate funds towards a conflict will allow for a national debate on the merits to commit troops into harm’s way. Thus the lengthy mobilization process forces and allows the time to have this national debate. Any efforts within the Army to fix the mobilization effort must first start with mobilization authorities authorized by Congress. Additionally, the mobilization authorities affect the other services reserve components in different degrees. One could argue that mobilization (the slow speed of this process) is more of a political issue rather than a service issue.

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