Sgt. Blaec Nelson, a Reserve reconnaissance Marine with Special-Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force Africa 13, scans the shoreline with Senegalese marine commandos during an aquatic combat marksmanship training course in April. (Cpl. Timothy Norris / Marine Corps)
As combat operations in Afghanistan continue to wind down, active-duty Marines may pick up some of the exotic training missions — like the Black Sea Rotational Force in Eastern Europe — that until recently have fallen to Marine reservists, according to Lt. Gen. Richard P. Mills, commanding general of Marine Corps Forces Reserve.
Mills is determined to reset the force and keep reservists in the game, so-to-speak, leveraging the knowledge and experience they have gained over the past decade at war. To do that, he said, the Reserve will continue to backfill the active-duty Marine Corps. And there will be ample opportunity to execute training and theater security cooperation missions in Central and South America and Africa, where small forces with niche specialties are needed.
While the drawdown has largely bypassed the Reserve, it will be hit particularly hard by budget cuts; there will be less money not just for gear, but for training and operations, Mills said.
Here is how he described the year ahead in a Sept. 10 interview, edited for space and clarity:
Q: The Reserve has seen significant restructuring. What’s the latest?
A: One of the bigger moves we made this year happened just last week — the deactivation of the 24th Marine Regiment headquarters, a historic regiment born on Iwo Jima. They are going to be redesignated as a logistics regiment in support of the Reserve force. The battalions themselves were not deactivated, they were passed on to become part of the other two infantry regiments within the 4th Marine Division.
We are not talking about reductions in actual manpower, are we?
A: Not at all. The [Reserve’s] end strength is 39,600. That is not to say that that couldn’t change in the future, but that is the authorized end strength. Most of those folks were either able to stay at the station where they had been drilling or moved through a good effort on the part of some transition teams that went out and visited each of the units that were going to be deactivated or redesignated. They worked with individual Marines to find them a spot where they could continue to serve. I think overall it has been done as well as possible without a lot of turbulence to the force and the individual Marine.
Are there other big changes we can expect in the coming year?
A: We are really paying attention to how the active force evolves and how we might have to adjust to support changes coming out of that structure. So I think there is going to be some very dynamic action within the Reserve component as we adjust to a peace-time Marine Corps, continue to backfill the active component so they get their dwell time, continue to send forces into the [unit deployment program], continue to support exercises like African Lion and continue to support [theater security cooperation] in [U.S. European Command, Africa Command and Southern Command]. And, we have some large scale exercises that are planned, out at Twentynine Palms, Calif., and others in conjunction with active forces, like Bold Alligator.
Will there be more opportunity for the Reserve as you backfill for a cash-strapped active force?
A: Yes and no. Things like training and our [operations and maintenance] funds are going to be cut. I think it is pretty evident there is going to be an impact on our ability to activate some units for exercises. There will be an impact on our ability to send some Marines to training that they need. I anticipate an impact on our readiness. We will take our fair share, but it is my job to battle to make sure we don’t take more than our fair share.
What about some of the exotic training missions? Do you foresee that some of those will be canceled?
A: I think some of it will be curtailed for a couple of reasons. I have already talked about the impact of sequestration on O&M funding.
The other thing is, with Afghanistan winding down, there will be more availability of the active component to take over some of those missions we have done in the past — the Georgia training mission and I am sure there are other exercises where the need for a Reserve unit to backfill will be gone. So I see there will be less activity by our units and our individuals.
But, we are still going to participate in the UDP. There are squadrons out there right now. We are still going to participate in a lot of the largest exercises and we are going to go to places where economy of forces make sense — places like SouthCom and other regions where the Reserve component fits nicely, has a niche capability and provides some relief, some dwell time, to the active units.
Q: Are there any specific geographic regions where you think the Reserve will play a particularly prominent role?
A: I think that you will see them in two places: Africa and in SouthCom. There are others, but I think those are two areas where the active force has not been overly committed. They are economy of force and economy of scale types of training missions and operations. The Reserve fits kind of nicely in there. Counter drug operations and things like that — there are Reserve units that have expertise in those kinds of areas. AfriCom, those are usually smaller exercises, but very important exercises short in duration. I think the Reserve component has gotten some good experience there over the past 10 years, so we can use that experience and expertise to really help in areas that might not get active-component forces assigned to them for those exercises.
The Reserve has had a chronic shortage of junior officers and noncommissioned officers. What might the drawdown and sequestration mean for that?
A: I think it is really a great time for the Reserve because as the active force draws down a bit, we are going to have access to some really talented officers and enlisted Marines, male and female, who are coming off of active duty. We are going to have a real talent base of experience.
As you know, there are a couple of programs tailored to meet that requirement.
The Direct Affiliation program has been around now for about a year. It allows officers or enlisted Marines, before they hit their end-of-active-service date, to affiliate with a Reserve unit for a seamless transition from active service.
The other place we are having success on the junior level is the Reserve Commissioning Program, where you have college graduates who go to Officer Candidates School, then to The Basic School, then on to military occupational specialty school and then right on out to the Reserve component to serve.
Q: As you come out of Afghanistan, what will it take to reset the Reserve?
A: A lot of equipment has been worn out and we have to be sure we are ready to reset the force. Also, we have to have a plan to make sure the Reserve reflects the modernization taking place in the active component. Of course, we know where we stand in the queue waiting to get modern gear. But we have to make sure we have a plan, whether for aircraft or ground equipment.
As you look to the year ahead, what is your top priority?
A: Obviously, we have to reset the force as the war in Afghanistan ends. We have to reset the Reserve component to once again be ready to go when called upon everywhere the nation needs us to go and doing whatever it is that the active component needs us to do. So readiness is my No. 1 priority.
The second priority is to ensure that all the lessons learned over the past 10 years are fully integrated into our training. We have learned a lot of lessons in mobilization and demobilization. We have learned a lot of lessons on interoperability with the active force.
And last, my other big priority is that we look out for the well-being of our Marines and sailors who are coming back from both the war and periods of active duty.
There are some unique challenges. On the reserve side, they go home, their families are a little more isolated, they are a little more isolated. We have to make sure we have a plan to get them back into their regular battle rhythm.