Throughout his tenure as Chief of the Army Reserve, Lt. Gen. Charles Luckey fundamentally transformed the way the reserve component saw itself. Since embarking on the ‘Road to Awesome,’ America’s Army Reserve has arrived at a place of operational savvy and mission-focused agility, capable of delivering at the speed of relevance. Just before his retirement after 43 years of service, we sat down to discuss the Reserve’s role in sustaining our force and nation throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.
It’s been two years since we last spoke to you about Ready Force X (RFX). How has the concept advanced?
I don’t think RFX enables readiness in the traditional sense, but rather it helps articulate our current state of readiness in terms of capability and speed. If you looked at the readiness reporting status of Reserve units today versus four years ago, some have gotten better and some worse. Have more gotten better than worse? Probably, but not appreciatively so because the challenge for us has always been the P-level—the manning piece.
We don’t move people into formations; we move structure to people. Unlike the active component, I don’t PCS people. I don’t have the authority to order somebody to fly across the country. If I can’t find and recruit into the formation, that one person who has a certain degree or additional skill identifier, I have to acknowledge I’m missing that critical piece despite a high P-level on paper.
Now that we’ve learned how to RFX ourselves, I can find that person—who may be in a different state—and as soon as I have the legal authority to move them into the manning document, I can mobilize it and, “boom.”
While this doesn’t necessarily translate to a statistically-relevant increase in readiness in some reporting document, it has absolutely increased our strategic readiness: the ability to leverage tactical readiness and get it where it’s needed to achieve results.
RFX is about us being able to say, “We may not be where we need to be today, but we can become wicked good here in a week.” How long will it take to put four engineer battalions on the Korean peninsula, fully ready to go to war? What about moving an intelligence battalion to Europe? Give me 15 minutes and two phone calls and I can answer those questions; I never could have done that four years ago.
How did RFX enable the Reserve’s COVID-19 response?
As the commander of this component, I’m exquisitely aware of all the unique capabilities that reside in it. In some cases, 70 percent or more of everything the Army has in a certain capability set exists inside the Reserve; in other cases, all of it does. And sometimes it’s both: it has to go fast at scale, and nobody else can do it.
Being successful as a commander of 200,000 Soldiers and civilians, spread over 20 time zones, requires incredible planning discipline to be able to find Soldiers and bring them from one organizational design into another. I’m confident we could have never created and deployed our Urban Augmentation Medical Task Forces (UAMTFs) if we hadn’t been working on RFX all this time. Doing so validated our efforts to generate the flexibility and intellectual agility required to reshape ourselves again and again for whatever’s next.
Like a seismic event, you don’t know when it will hap-pen, you just know it’s going to happen. We didn’t know COVID-19 would be the threat; that’s why it’s called “X.” RFX enables us to be ready for whatever the “X” becomes. Some have said, “Luckey’s all about medicine now.” No—we could do the same with engineers, civil affairs, you name it. We’ve learned how to rethink the requirements for the future, then adjust to it quickly.
How are you ensuring combat readiness does not erode across the force?
Driving through Philadelphia on the way back from visiting a UAMTF, we passed the Eagles’ stadium and then the Flyers’ arena. The parking lots were full of brand new vehicles. Nobody was buying cars, yet they kept coming in from the plants. First, it was 20 million people out of work, then 40 million. The one thing we couldn’t let happen was preventing these Soldiers from getting paid to maintain individual Soldier readiness. They needed the money, and they needed the security, safety, and stability of being associated with this team.
We don’t stay in states or communities to train like the National Guard does; we travel. I didn’t want our Soldiers moving long distances and spreading contagion from one place to another, nor did I want them coming together in groups unless absolutely critical for a mission. The only way to mitigate those risks was to say, “I’m willing to let you stay home, do your physical training and online learning, and check in regularly with your first-line supervisor.” So we’ve started virtual battle assemblies and our Soldiers are still getting paid.
I’m careful not to be Pollyannaish, but I think we’ll be able to sustain that individual Soldier readiness for quite a while. Our ability to maintain collective readiness, however, will be a challenge until we get Soldiers training face-to-face again. But as long as I can keep you physically fit, educated, and individually ready—things I can’t make up in three or four days—I can bring you together and collectively get you to a pretty good place quickly.
With RFX, we’re all in; we depend on everyone because RFX starts at the individual Soldier level. As we come out of this—I won’t say post-COVID, but rather COVID-informed because this will be around for a while—we’re going to be okay. I can’t say exactly where we’ll be in six to 10 months, but RFX will allow us to see how much we’ve degraded and continue enabling us to communicate how long it’s going to take to generate capability from a strategic readiness perspective. A year ago, I might’ve told you 42 days for an engineer battalion to become fully-capable from the time you say, “Go.” Today, that answer might be 47 days but, again, that’s something I couldn’t do four years ago.
Are you comfortable with our current sustainment force structure balance?
As we talk about the future, multi-domain operations, and the Total Army, that discussion has to include the amount of sustainment capability in COMPO 3. We have to think through what the Army Reserve can truly support at the speed of relevance to fight a particular operation. What are the critical capabilities we know we must have at the time war breaks out—even before it’s started—to set the theater from a sustainment perspective?
When it comes to balancing force structure, I think we’ve taken reasonable, prudent risk for the fight we’ve been in. But that same analysis doesn’t necessarily hold up fighting an existential war against a peer competitor. Can I forever give you a petroleum platoon, or this or that formation, for Afghanistan knowing I have three or four years to produce it on a patch chart? Absolutely. But to do it at scale against a near-peer who’s going to try to sink our supplies and equipment in the ocean before it even gets there? That’s a whole different thing, and a conversation that’s overdue.
Am I the expert? No, I’m not a sustainer. But as the leader of this component, I’m totally comfortable saying that whatever the Army needs in the way of rebalancing force structure, I’m totally with the Army Materiel Command commander and our Army G-4.
What is next on the Road to Awesome?
On the Road to Awesome, you get banged up a little bit: you win some, you lose some. The key is to just keep moving. What does America’s Army Reserve need to do to continue supporting the Army as best and as fast as we can? Play to our strengths and continue to generate capability at speed and at a huge cost savings to the American people.
If we move into a future where there is downward pressure on defense budgets, the size of the regular Army could decrease. If that happens, there may be a conversation about also making the Reserve smaller but that’s the wrong way to look at it in my opinion. The time to make the Army Reserve bigger is when you’re forced to make the active component smaller.
The Army Reserve is a great place to capture talent coming off of active duty. Most senior leaders in the Reserve didn’t start out here. I started out in the infantry and special forces in the active component, went to law school, spent some time in the Reserve, went back on active duty for five or six years as a lawyer at Fort Bragg, then came back off active duty and into the Army Reserve. But unlike the Guard, our grade-plate structure tends to have more senior billets. As the Army’s been growing in recent years, fewer Soldiers have been coming off of active duty because retention bonuses have increased. If we get to a place where the Army must retract, we’re probably still going to need that talent but we simply can’t afford it—so let’s figure out a way to keep it warm. The Army Reserve becomes that catcher’s mitt.
Speed is the other reason to grow the reserve component. When you do need to turn capability back on, so long as we’re still RFX-ing we can do a lot pretty quickly. I’ve never advertised that we can fight tonight, but we do fight fast. We have formations that are going to be able to do their job in three days. It’s not a great hedge, but it’s a pretty inexpensive one—and it’s sure better than not having one at all.
The Road to Awesome also includes increasing our presence in what I call “digital key terrain” in America. We’re in a competitive space with adversaries who try to influence elections and manufacture chatter in social media to create a perception that everyone is at each other’s throats. By creating that impression, people begin to turn on themselves and it undermines our way of life. If that’s the game, we have to get good at it.
The 75th Innovation Command in Houston continues to leverage more Reserve Soldiers working in emerging technologies like artificial intelligence, quantum computing, and information operations. In many ways, it’s analogous to our formation in 1908. The Reserve was created to augment the Army’s combat medical capacity by rapidly leveraging doctors already out there practicing medicine in the civilian world. Just as we maintained that high level of technical efficacy in the medical domain—our UAMTFs are on the frontlines in the fight against COVID-19 112 years later—we’re now doing the same with Soldiers that are already wicked savvy in the cyber domain. Some of our cyber- and information warfare-type formations are over 200-percent strength because people are interested and want to be involved. It’s a no-brainer to continue growing these areas.
What message do you have for the Army Reserve team in the face of an uncertain future?
I tell our Soldiers all the time, “Of course it’s uncertain—it’s the future!” But it’s our responsibility to shape it. The future isn’t something that just happens. Events happen, earthquakes happen, but we bear the responsibility of what the future looks like.
Ownership is critical. Ownership separates adolescents from adults: adolescents tend to blame everyone else for things that aren’t right, while adults accept responsibility and own outcomes. When folks in the Luckey household get stressed out, we’ll often write down all of the things we’re worried about on a piece of paper. As we go through the list, we cross off everything we can’t do anything about. Now, that list is only three or four things. What’s the plan? Figure out what it is you want to do, and then what you need to do to achieve that effect. It sounds pretty obvious, but it’s not an intuitive skill. It takes some discipline, and it probably takes a few life lessons. That philosophy helps you shape the future because you focus your energy into those things you can actually affect.
We have two things most people don’t. First: purpose. We have a mission to support and defend the Constitution of the United States of America against all enemies foreign and domestic, and to bear true faith and allegiance to the same. Second: each other. When you’re on a team of people who’ve taken an oath to give up their lives for that idea, that’s powerful. The future is going to continue to be hard, but we have a say in what it looks like. Be resilient, be persistent, and keep moving. It’s a long road—keep pounding!
Arpi Dilanian is a strategic analyst in the Army Logistics Initiatives Group, Office of the Deputy Chief of Staff, G-4, Department of the Army. She holds a bachelor's degree from American University and a master's degree from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.
Matthew Howard is a strategic analyst in the Logistics Initiatives Group, Office of the Deputy Chief of Staff, G-4, Department of the Army. He holds bachelor's and master's degrees from Georgetown University.
This article was published in the October-December 2020 issue of Army Sustainment.