On July 11, the U.S. Army Reserve’s official website published an article about an active-duty lieutenant colonel taking command of a Reserve Military Police Battalion. The article’s upbeat tone disguises the real reason the Army Reserve has been unable to fill these billets with Army Reserve officers.
While the active-duty Army has implemented an intense four-day assessment to determine an officer’s fitness for command, the Army Reserve cannot get enough officers to volunteer for command, to fill the billets they do have. The Army Reserve states this in HQDA EXORD 139-22:
“1.C. (U) FROM CALENDAR YEAR (CY) 2016-2020, 110 LTC COMMANDS WERE IMPACTED WITH ‘NO FILLS’, WITH SEVERAL COMMANDS EXPERIENCING ‘NO FILLS’ TWO OR MORE YEARS IN A ROW. LOGISTICS, VETERINARY, SIGNAL, PUBLIC AFFAIRS, MILITARY POLICE, CYBER, CHEMICAL, CIVIL AFFAIRS, ADJUTANT’S GENERAL, ARMY MEDICAL DEPARTMENT OF THE U.S. ARMY (AMEDD) AND OTHER BRANCH IMMATERIAL UNITS HAVE EXPERIENCED ‘NO FILLS’.”
Over a five-year period, 110 command positions could not be filled because the Army Reserve lacked willing commanders. The shortage of willing commanders has become so acute in the Army Reserve that O5 command is no longer an opt-in board to be considered for command, but opt-out board, meaning that lieutenant colonels and majors who are up for promotion who do not wish to command must proactively go into the system and state that they do not wish to be considered for command. This opt-out command selection process is a kind of “shadow conscription” for battalion commanders. Officers who aren’t engaged enough to know they are on a command board or understand the system may suddenly find themselves in command of a reserve battalion when they weren’t expecting it. Not really the way you want to be selecting your leaders. Spend some time with and speak to soldiers who have served under commanders selected in this manner; you will find the level of engagement and competency from these leaders is what you might expect.
But even opt-out command selection boards have not been enough to fill the ranks of the Army Reserve’s battalion commanders. As of the June 2022 command board, six O5 command positions for 2022 remain unfilled. These positions were supposed to have commanders identified in January, and in fact, all six billets did have commanders slated in January, but those officers have since dropped off the list.
Despite opt-out command boards, the Army Reserve is still coming up short on commanders. Command of a battalion should be the culminating event in most officers’ careers, something to be fought for, an achievement. Instead, some Army Reserve officers are saying “no thanks.” While active duty becomes more selective for battalion command, the Army Reserve has become more desperate, with some commands taking anyone willing, or anyone simply not paying attention. This approach has likely had the expected effect on the quality of commanders the Reserve gets as well.
Has this shortage made the Army Reserve examine why they continue to come up short on battalion commanders? Have the incentives and compensation for battalion command been examined? Have ways to assist battalion commanders with the inordinate amount of time they put in on tasks been considered? Have ways to convince the Army Reserve’s best officers to take command been contemplated? No, not in any obvious way.
Instead of looking for ways to incentivize its best officers to consider battalion command, this year the Army Reserve began a program to place active duty officers in vacant Army Reserve command positions. This program looks to fill four Army Reserve O5 command positions with active-duty officers as a pilot program. In effect, the Army Reserve appears to have given up on filling their battalion command positions internally and is instead allowing active-duty officers to command Army Reserve units full-time.
Many lieutenant colonels are hesitant to take command of a battalion because of the enormous time commitment required in exchange for relatively little pay. This is adding to the difficulties of not only filling command positions with decent candidates, but filling them at all. Most Army Reserve soldiers have seen commanders who are clearly in their position not because they were highly qualified or competitive, but solely because they put their names on the list, and that is not a good place to be as an organization. But rather than find a way to make command more palatable to reserve officers, U.S. Army Reserve Command would rather offer battalion command positions to active-duty officers.
Even if these positions are difficult to fill, it is hard to understand why the Army Reserve would consider offering them to active-duty officers, rather than offering an active-duty tour (ADOS) to reserve officers. Many Army Reserve lieutenant colonels would be thrilled to be able to be on ADOS for battalion command. Even if it wasn’t a full-time active-duty tour, US Army Reserve Command could solve a good deal of its quantity and quality problems with commanders by offering more paid duty days, or even just command incentive pay. Other incentives to command should also be considered.
The lack of interest that Army Reserve officers are showing in battalion command should be ringing alarms throughout U.S. Army Reserve Command, and the answer should not be opt-out boards to “conscript” more commanders, nor should it be giving command of a Reserve battalion to active-duty officers. Battalion command is a key leadership position, where the next generation of senior leaders are formed. U.S. Army Reserve Command should be looking to make the command of a battalion desirable and competitive, something that attracts the best officers in the formation.
I put my name on the battalion command selection list for next year, but I was not excited about it, or the many unpaid hours I might have had to put in if I was selected. I was doing so not out of real desire, but because I felt like it was my duty. I was extremely disheartened to see that U.S. Army Reserve Command is willing to fill command positions with active-duty officers rather than offer me and my peers the time and support we need, and I don’t really feel so duty-bound anymore. I have removed my name from battalion command consideration, since USARC would rather give battalion command positions away than give its own leaders the resources they need to succeed.
Lt. Col. Mischa Arnold is a Civil Affairs Officer with 21 years of service in the Army Reserve.