Some two hundred years ago, several major European nations began conscripting civilians for the military on a regular basis. These soldiers served for only two or three years before being released. Shortly thereafter, clever staff officers in several nations came up with the notion of bringing some of these former soldiers back to the army in times of national danger. Thus began the infamous "reserve system," which enabled enormous armies to be created quickly and relatively inexpensively. World Wars I and II would not have been possible without the reserve system. These former soldiers are used in a variety of ways:
1-Bring skeleton peacetime units up to strength during mobilization. This is an essential element of the Russian reserve system. The former Soviet Union army was an extreme application of the reserve system, where only a third of the divisions were full strength in peace time. Even the United States maintains only 55 percent of its divisions at full strength in peace time. The Soviets were prepared to mobilize over two million men to fill out their divisions in wartime. America requires a million reservists to bring all units up to strength. About half of all reserves are required for nondivisional (largely support) units. The new Russian army will probably have a system closer to that of the US. In any event, the US system worked quite well in the Gulf War, particularly with regard to the non-combat support units. The US is also reducing its reserve forces with the end of the Cold War. But reserves will remain, as they are too effective a concept to entirely discard.
2-Maintenance of active units. The former Soviet Union maintained many of their reserve divisions with but a skeleton crew of active duty soldiers. The United States maintains its reserve divisions primarily with reserve soldiers who serve full time several days a month and two weeks during the summer. In 1914 the Germans demonstrated to their disbelieving opponents that reserves could be as effective in wartime as regulars. The Germans did this by requiring their reserves to train regularly, much like the current American system. The Soviet Union could not afford this, although attempts are made to do some training. Most Soviet reservists were assigned to a unit they have never seen, and never would see unless called up. The Soviet Union did activate their reservists in this manner when it invaded Afghanistan in 1979, but quickly removed these reserve troops and replaced them with regulars. The successor states to the Soviet Union are abandoning the traditional Soviet reserve system and trying to emulate the US system. One reason to emulate a US system is that the US system obviously works, the other reason is to eliminate the Soviet Unions reserve obligations that were very unpopular with the millions of reservists.
3-Replacements for combat losses. During heavy combat, tank and infantry battalions can lose 10 to 20 percent of their men a day. Half these losses will be permanent or long term. Other units in the divisions will lose smaller amounts. Three weeks of heavy combat with twenty divisions means over 200 battalions losing forty or fifty men a day. That adds up, in this case it amounts to over 150,000 troops that have to replaced quickly. The reserve troops are the most readily available source.
4-Formation of new units. Forming a new division requires nondivisional troops as well, for a total of at least 20,000 men per new division. You need troops possessing a variety of technical skills. Some of these specialists have a civilian counterpart and can often be taken directly from the civilian population. Specialists for which there is no civilian equivalent, primarily combat ones, must come from the reserves. Starting new divisions from scratch, without a pool of trained manpower, can take a year. With sufficient former soldiers, you can do it in a few months. The former Soviet Union maintained an additional fifty divisions on paper, to be raised in wartime from reserves and obsolete equipment held in storage. These units, with troops in their thirties and forties using equipment as old as they are, would have been no match for an equal number of active divisions. But such "mobilization" divisions did make a difference during World War II. The successor states to the Soviet Union will probably maintain some paper divisions, if only on paper. There isn't much usable equipment left for these units.
The Former Soviet Union
Although the Soviet Union is gone, fragments of its reserve system, the largest in history, still remain in Russia and several other successor states. Just how much of the Soviet reserve system will survive in these successor states will not be known until the end of the decade. The Soviet Union kept track of every veteran until the age of fifty. This was their reserve. Most nations use the same general concept. Unable to afford the expense of regular reserve training, the usual source of men with current experience are those discharged in the last few years. This reduced the Soviet Unions effective reserve to a million men times the number of years you want to go back- say two to five million men. This was a major flaw in the Russian system, as it has been found that soldiers lose most of their military skills within a month of leaving the military. It takes several months to get these skills back. If troops are sent into combat before they have been retrained, their units will do very poorly against a better trained opponent.
The Soviet system, originally developed in 19th century Germany, is suitable for a nation lacking great wealth. In the Soviet Union a reservist might not, by law, be called up for more than ninety days a year unless a national emergency was declared. This was not done out of any regard for the reservist, but in recognition of the labor shortage and economic disruptions that would be created. Most reservists were never called up. An example of the problems inherent in this system could be seen in the Soviet mobilization against Poland in 1980. In areas adjacent to Poland, the Soviet Union had 57 divisions. At least 40 would be needed to guarantee a quick pacification of Poland. The Soviets could not afford the political fallout from prolonged fighting in Poland. Of the 57 available divisions, only 28 were fully manned and 24 of those were occupying East Germany and Czechoslovakia. Because of possible unrest in Eastern Europe, or interference from Western Europe, the divisions in East Germany and Czechoslovakia could probably not be used. This would mean using 36 reserve divisions, and bringing most of them in from other areas. Over half a million men would have to be called up. This would have a noticeable effect on the local economy. This strain on the local economy was one of the critical, but not mentioned, factors causing the Soviet Union to halt their attempt to mobilize reserve divisions for use against Poland.
Israel provides another example. Mobilization calls up over 15 percent of the Jewish and Druze population and severely disrupts the economy. Other nations, Sweden and Switzerland, also have reserve armies whose mobilization would shut down their economies. However, these two nations are neutral and depend more on the threat of mobilization. Israel has had to mobilize many times in the past and will probably have to do it again. Economic disruption is not the only problem mobilization armies face. Many of these armies tend to rely heavily on conscripts, to the extent that 75 percent of their manpower are two or three year draftees. This is typical in those nations that rely on conscription. In Russian style armies, most of the noncommissioned officers are senior conscripts of dubious quality. The officers in these armies are generally all volunteers and graduates of military academies. These officers perform the tasks normally assigned to NCO's in Western armed forces.
Supervision, management and leadership were inadequate in the peacetime Soviet armed forces and would have become even more chaotic when millions of reservists were mobilized. The mobilized army would have been about 85 percent conscript, with the rate going over 90 percent in a third of the divisions. If history is any guide, this third of the old Soviet Army would have been less than half as effective as the top third. The solution to these quality problems is training. Most Western armies train their reserves, or attempt to. Training is critical because an effective soldier is very much a technician. The effective maintenance and use of weapons and military equipment is possible only with constant practice. Reserves that do not regularly practice require one or more months to regain their skills. Personnel with prior military service are easier to whip into shape for combat because of their familiarity with military routine. Because of their prior service, reserve troops have demonstrated an ability to function in a military environment. However, one should not place too much reliance on prior military experience. Unless these troops maintain good physical conditioning and some knowledge of their military skill, they are not a great deal better than raw civilian recruits. The Soviet reserve system provided large numbers of troops, but lower effectiveness. The Russians of the old Soviet Union were aware of this, being diligent students of past experience. Their solution was to prepare for a short war, short enough so their deficiencies will not catch up with them. This is not to say that the Soviet Union could not have won a long war. They were victorious during World War II, but at a cost of 30 million dead and a ruined economy.
The Soviet navy and air forces also used reserves, but not as extensively as the army. They need skilled personnel to man their more complex equipment. Reserves were used primarily as laborers and support workers, except where civilian skills qualify them for technical tasks.
The U. S. System
The US reserve system is generally as misunderstood as the system the former Soviet Union used. Comparing the Soviet army's 200 divisions with the 21 US army and marine units in the late 1980s was comparing apples and oranges. Only a third of the Soviet divisions were at the same level of readiness as the US ones. America had 18 US reserve divisions, or equivalents in smaller units, which are larger and, arguably, more capable than their Soviet counterparts. The ratio was more like 65 to 30 in ready-to-fight divisions, and 200 to 65 in overall division strength. These numbers included marine units but does not take into account the larger borders and number of hostile neighbors the Soviets had to guard against.
The US reserve system grew out of the pre-revolution militia, now represented by the National Guard system. These units provide 40 percent of the infantry and armor battalions. Although the Guard has a long standing reputation as a social club and fiefdom of local politicians, their performance in this century has demonstrated that they can fight too. Active army units that have "fought" Guard units in maneuvers have learned not to underestimate their skill and effectiveness.
The official reserve units are directly under the control of their respective services. Like the Guard, the reserves use both former active duty troops and personnel recruited directly into reserve units. Together, the Guard and reserves accounted for over 50 percent of ground combat and 60 percent of combat support units just before the Cold War ended. This militia system is used by several other nations. Britain, for example, has its territorial troops who operate much like the US National Guard. Germany has a territorial army whose wartime task is maintaining order and guarding against saboteurs and raids. Most nations have small navy and air force reserve units. The US maintains major portions of its naval and air force strength in the reserves. Hundreds of aircraft, including the most modern combat planes, are manned by reservists. Again, the reserve pilots often show up the regulars. This should not be surprising, as the reserve pilots are former regulars who continue to pile up flying hours as a hobby. The US naval reserve maintains scores of support and escort ships, participating in maneuvers on an equal basis with regular navy units.
The US reserve system is a recent development. Only a wealthy economy can provide enough skilled people with enough leisure time to become effective part-time soldiers. The average reservist spends five weeks a year training. In addition, they can be called up for longer periods in the event of civil or military emergencies. A few nations have gone the US one better. Sweden, Switzerland and Israel maintain similar, but proportionately larger reserve systems. Indeed, Sweden and Switzerland have practically no regular forces to speak of and depend on their huge reserve armies to deter potential aggressors. So far this appears to have worked.
The US system is not without its disadvantages. Although over half of US Army combat strength is from the reserve and National Guard forces, these received only ten percent of the Army's budget at the end of the Cold War. While this might be enough if there were reasonable spending goals, the US Army goes for building combat units that, in wartime, would have to be supported by reserve units that lack much essential equipment. On paper, National Guard brigades are part of regular Army divisions that would fight together in the event of a war. However, the National Guard units do not have complete sets of equipment, as the regular units do have. It would take over 30 days longer to ship the National Guard units over because of the time required to obtain the missing equipment. These discrepancies are regularly glossed over. Indeed, the National Guard officers are told not to report equipment shortages if the discrepancy is major. This approach only shows minor shortages and simply ignores the major ones. Moreover, during the Gulf War, the regulars simply didn't want the three National Guard brigades that were technically part of divisions sent to the Gulf. There was a considerable scandal over how this was handled and we haven't heard the last of it.
The only bright spot in this situation is that every other nation probably has a similar situation with understrength reserve units. The chief advantage of the US style reserve system is the existence of fully formed and trained units. The quality of these units is what makes the system work. Training together over many years, these reserve units achieve a degree of cohesion and professionalism that often surpass regular units. It's a rich man's system which less affluent nations like Russia cannot afford to match.
The Uncounted Reserves
When war breaks out, a lot of civilians find themselves in uniform doing pretty much the same work they performed in peacetime. As warfare becomes more technological, the skills of the support soldier become more important. Complex skills are retained only through practice. A soldier that learned a technical skill in the service and went on to another career as a civilian rapidly losses those military skills. The regularly practiced skill of a civilian electronics technician becomes immediately useful in the military. The ability of a nation to make civilian expertise a military asset depends on the quantity and quality of these skills available. The Western nations have a distinct advantage in this respect. These nations have a surplus of these skills because of their higher standard of living. Poor nations live closer to the threshold of survival. Current examples are the many poor colonies that lost their thin reserve of technicians in the post-colonial period. Starvation, economic collapse and a general inability to make any massive efforts, like industrialization or a major war, resulted. Russia suffered in this fashion during World War II. Much of Russia's industrial base was overrun by the Germans in 1941-2. Most of the aid given to Russia during the war was not war material but industrial goods, raw materials and other supplies. These were lacking because too many Russian technicians were at the front getting killed. Soviet industrial and technical resources were not sufficient to keep their armed forces going without external assistance. Russians remember this trauma better than most Westerners realize. Despite the demise of the Soviet Union, Russians will continue to implement their traditional solutions. Their equipment will be kept quite simple by Western standards. Russian designers will readily sacrifice performance in order to field a weapon that can be used effectively with minimal training. This is not always possible, but it is pursued diligently enough to make Russian weapons attractive to Third World nations lacking a large pool of technically skilled people.