The future of the Australian Army Reserve (Reserves) is a topic hotly contested in messes, around barbeques and in the comments section found under thought-provoking articles on the The Cove. Times are changing, and so is Army.

An increasing role for Army’s 2nd Division, comprising mostly Reservists, in domestic operations (DOMOPS) is now broadly accepted.[1] As the latest change in the role of the Reserves, thinking about how we got here can be interpreted in two ways:

  • Either the Reserve is a flexible, constantly changing and adaptable force, employed in various operational settings, in different forms – and ready to take on this most important responsibility.
  • Or the Reserve is a 'disproportionately expensive'[2] capability that, even after significant reforms, remains a 'stranded capability'[3] with a confused value proposition – training for war, but delivering versatile and adaptive teams to support civil organisations in times of crisis too.

Regardless of how you frame it, in the post-bushfires, post-COVID economic climate, the belt will tighten on Government – including the Reserves. Already, the question is being asked whether the Reserves can continue to do both – maintain responsibility and capability for DOMOPS and train for Foundation Warfighting.[4]

Looking backwards at a two decade ‘highlights reel’ suggests that the Reserve can do both – but doing so comes at a cost. Looking sideways at what our American mates do suggests the Reserve can indeed do both, but doing so means maximising the value of the Reserve during non-crisis, non-wartime periods and finding new roles and tasks to ensure value for money. By looking backwards and sideways, we can work out where the Reserve stands in order to then look forward as to how the Reserve might create value in the future.

Looking backwards: A flexible and adaptable force

For the Reserves, a two-decade long ‘highlights reel’ shows constant change, and several different approaches to extracting value from the part time force.

Between 2004 and 2014, around 2,400 Reserve soldiers deployed on operations, the majority of which were part of collective capabilities on peacekeeping and humanitarian operations in East Timor and the Solomon Islands.[5]

Between 2014 and 2017, the majority of deployed reservists were individual reinforcements and small teams, as well as embeds to coalition headquarters, niche specialist capabilities and senior officer appointments.[6] Drawing on the conclusions of the Defence White Paper in 2000,[7] by 2017 the notion that the Reserve will maintain collective capabilities and structures for mobilisation in response to strategic warning had become a distant memory.

In February 2017 the Chief of Army’s ‘Total Force Approach for Operational Deployments’ directive set the scene for the new status quo, with some positions on all operations to be made available to Reservists.[8] To some, it might have appeared that the future of the Reserves was to train collectively but to deploy as individuals, (or at best small teams) amongst a larger force drawn substantially from the permanent forces. But the role of the Reservist would quickly become much more varied.

Today, the view that the Reservist’s domain is exclusively low-to-medium risk stabilisation, border protection and humanitarian operations is quickly vanishing. Rather, the relevance and necessity of concepts like One Army, and the Total Workforce System,[9] are reinforced – if not proven – by recent events.

In October 2018, a mostly Reserve force quietly established Joint Task Force 646 to support the Invictus Games with ceremonial, security and general support. Planning alongside civil authorities and the Games’ organisers – proving a collective capability to proactively support civil organisations.[10]

In October 2019 Defence sought in a submission to Government, 'to normalise and practice the 'Call Out' arrangements [for Reservists] which, to date, had never been used.'[11] Three months later on 04 January 2020 the Governor General called out the Reserves for the first time in history[12] as part of OP BUSHFIRE ASSIST – proving a collective capability to reactively respond to a civil organisations’ request for support.

In 2020, Reservists deployed on OP COVID ASSIST to support states and territories initially with compliance checks for people self-isolating while augmenting the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade’s planning teams responding to the crisis in the Pacific[13]  – proving an individual and collective capability to respond to varied and diverse DOMOPS tasks.

The most recent part of the ‘highlights reel’ made it apparent that the role of the Reserve domestically was increasing. But as the Reserve refocuses on proactively planning alongside civil organisations, and conducting contingency planning to reactively assist during crises, others have suggested the focus and expenditure on preparation for warfighting must also shift to domestic operations.[14]

But the ‘highlights reel’ proves that the Reserve does not need a single focus. It has a broad utility and is likely capable of broader utility still. Over two decades, the Reserves has proven its ability to provide individual reinforcements, embeds, senior officers and small teams in support of the permanent force, and concurrently train for and deliver collective capabilities for DOMOPS and low-mid risk roles overseas. The value of those individuals and teams was generated by virtue of their individual readiness, common training and the soft skills and attributes developed through training for foundational warfighting.

Looking back at the ‘highlights reel’ suggests the Reserve can do both – maintain responsibility and capability for DOMOPS and train for Foundation Warfighting. But it comes at a cost, perhaps most readily seen in force generation ratios that suggest you need almost three times as many Reservists to generate a force element of company size. Accordingly, the Reserve must find ways to maximise its value.

Finding new roles and tasks to ensure maximum utilisation during non-crisis, non-wartime periods will ensure that the Reserves’ broad utility is consistently leveraged and therefore represents value for money.

For ideas on what other useful things a broad utility Reserve might do, we need not look further than what our American mates do.

Looking sideways: What our American mates do

Having spent the last 12 months in Washington DC, the distinction I made above, between proactively supporting a civil organisation, and doing so reactively in response to a crisis, was deliberate. In my view, it goes to one of the ways that the District of Columbia National Guard (DCNG) maintains their value as a broad utility reserve force.

For most of the National Guard, their historical foundation as the State’s militia, and the State Governors’ ongoing ability to call up the relevant Guard to respond to domestic emergencies, is the only value proposition they’ll ever need. With no Governor for the District of Columbia, the DCNG is permanently ‘federalized’ and is the only National Guard unit to report to the President, through the Secretary of the Army. Additionally, the DCNG is (relatively) small, comprising less than 3,000 personnel (roughly the size of and Australian Army Reserve Brigade). Like an Army Reserve Brigade, the Army component of the DCNG comprises capabilities from many corps (though the US emphasis on aviation is perhaps missing from the Australian Reserves).

This makes the DCNG slightly more analogous to the Australian Reserves. Like the Australian Reserves, the DCNG must be able to distinguish itself (from other federal assets), remain relevant and provide value – making it an interesting point of reference for the Australian Reserves.

The DCNG is comprised of a standing Joint Force Headquarters component incorporates civil support, planning and liaison capabilities as well as an Army and Air Force component. The Army Component and Joint Force Headquarters distinguishes itself, remains relevant and provides value for money not by focusing training and expenditure on a single type of operation, nor by only maintaining specialist capabilities to augment the permanent (active duty) forces, but rather by being a broad utility reserve force.

For the DCNG, relevance comes from a standing domestic operational cycle, where the DCNG’s Joint Force Headquarters proactively engages and plans alongside civil authorities and organisations. Each year the DCNG supports significant events in the Capital Region, including the State of the Union Address, Fourth of July celebrations, significant summits and conferences and (perhaps most significantly) the Presidential Inauguration. These reoccurring domestic operations strengthen ties between the DCNG and civil organisations, foster familiarity with inter-agency planning and provide members of the Guard with the opportunity to contribute (in a very visible way) to the community in which they live.

For the DCNG, value for money comes from their broad utility. Being able to respond to ‘virtually any mission’ as espoused in the organisations vision: 'A relevant, resilient and responsive professional joint force ready at a moment’s notice for virtually any…mission.'[15] In the last two years, the DCNG has supported emergency requests for assistance from civil organisations responding to natural disasters, COVID-19 and First Amendment activity in the capitol region. These reactive responses to crises leverage the interoperability that is built though reoccurring scheduled domestic operations and capitalise on the C2 structures, communication and other soft skills that are refined through collective training.

Annual collective training is scheduled to complement the domestic operations cycle. In some instances, where collective capabilities are required as part of contingency plans, collective training is conducted after reception staging and onwards integration (RSOI) has been completed, ensuring maximum utilisation of the DCNG.

The significant focus on domestic operations does not detract from the DCNG’s ability to support the permanent (active duty) force by augmenting overseas deployments. In 2019, two Detachments of the DCNG’s General Support Aviation Battalions returned from deployments in Afghanistan where they provided relief capabilities whilst attached the 101st Airborne Division. Numerous individuals and small teams of specialists from the DCNG’s aviation and maintenance capabilities also deployed, complementing larger organisations drawn from the permanent forces.

But, being a broad utility force means the DCNG can also provide value in other ways:

  • Under the auspices of the State Partnership Program (SPP) the DCNG builds partner capability with the Jamaican Defence Force and the Burkina Faso Armed Forces. The SPP leverages the nature of Reserve service, (specifically that members of the Guard spend the majority of their careers in the same wing or unit) to develop enduring, trusted partnerships in some cases over the entire career of a member of the Guard. Through subject matter expert (SME) exchanges, and participation in combat exercises, the DCNG has built partner capability in Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Response, Operations, Planning, Medical, Aviation and Legal and Chaplaincy fields (amongst others). Perhaps more importantly, the DCNG has built enduring, trusted relationships.
  • By partnering with District and federal law enforcement agencies the DCNG helps counter illicit drug and transnational threats to the Homeland. The DCNG assists civil organisations in delivering community education, supporting intelligence analysis and by supporting arrest operations, aerial reconnaissance and surveillance. According to the DCNG the program has assisted law enforcement agencies to seize illicit drugs and assets valued at over $10 million for each year that the program has run. 
  • Through ongoing work alongside community groups, charitable organisations and local authorities the DCNG helps build social cohesion and counter discrimination. Since 1968, the DCNG has conducted an annual Youth Leaders Camp, building social cohesion and youth engagement (alongside a likely recruiting benefit). A separate program for high-school dropouts and disengaged youth provides one of the Nation’s most effective and cost efficient programs for at-risk youth. Finally the DCNG’s ‘Family Readiness’ program sees members of the DCNG supporting Yellow Ribbon, Food & Pharmacy and other charitable organisations for over 600 hours a year.

But could initiatives like these work in the Australian context?

Looking forward: The value of a broad utility Reserve

Of course they could. In fact the Reserve’s ‘highlights reel’ shows progress towards some of these initiatives already – such as proactive support to civil organisations, and the well documented reactive operations in response to recent crises. But how do we maximise value from the Reserve in the non-crisis, non-wartime periods?

An additional task for the broad utility Reserve, could be international engagement, modelled off the National Guard’s SPP, to leverage the nature of reserve service when thinking about Defence’s contributions to the Pacific Step Up. Last year the Chief of Army described Australia’s role in the Indo-Pacific as that of a ‘neighbour, friend and partner’, noting that ‘friendships are not just built on work; most friends work and socialise together. Our Army, our people, strengthen relationships through sport, cultural events, music and religion.’[16]

With the focus clearly on the ‘human factors’ of relationship building in the Pacific, there is a unique opportunity to leverage our part time force. Like the DCNG, most Australian Army Reservists spend the majority of their career in a single Brigade or State/Territory – unlike their full time counterparts, whose postings often involve interstate moves. An habitual relationship between an Army Reserve Unit, or Brigade and a partner in the Pacific could see the same soldiers and officers interacting over an entire career. To build on the Chief of Army’s speech: ‘friendships are not just built on work; most friends work and socialise together…’ over a series of years, or even a career.   

For the DCNG, their partnerships with Burkina Faso is relatively new, but they’ve worked alongside the Jamaican Defence Force (JDF) since 1999. Some of the junior officers and NCOs who participated in the first SME exchanges in the early 2000s, now hold senior positions within the DCNG and so too do their counterparts in the JDF. With trusted relationships, built over two decades between ‘friends and neighbours’, the human factor of relationship building could have strategic diplomatic significance. The relationships fostered through the SPP routinely endure much longer than the tenure of a Foreign Service Officer from the Department of State, or an embed from a combatant command who is posted for a single assignment/tour. But the SPP is not the only lesson we can learn from our American mates.

Whilst the Australian Reserves are unlikely to support Law Enforcement efforts to counter transnational crime in Australia, we could work more routinely with our domestic partners – an option already suggested as a means of enhancing Reserve capability within the existing organisation.[17] Proactively engaging, then supporting planning alongside civilian agencies could form another component of the Reserve’s value proposition. Routine domestic operations, like those undertaken by the DCNG do not always involve soldiers in the streets. Rather, planning alongside government agencies and even the organisers of large events, would not only increase interoperability but render contingency responses more effective and timely.

Routine domestic operations where Reservists are highly visible have significant benefits too.  They provide Reservists with an opportunity to contribute to the community in which they live – driving recruitment, retention and very positive public relations content, like that generated during OP BUSHFIRE ASSIST. For the DCNG, whose routine domestic operations focus on assisting law enforcement during protected ‘First Amendment activity,’ this has seen manning focus on relevant military trades (such as Military Police, and staff officers for manning situational awareness capabilities). For the Australian Reserves, whose routine domestic operations will almost certainly focus on natural disaster responses, a manning focus on relevant military trades (such as engineers, logistics and supply) would likely assist in enhancing response capabilities.


The Reserves’ highlight reel, features a broadening of utility over the last two decades that is increasing in speed. Defence’s Strategic Update features increasing uncertainty and changes in Australia’s strategic environment that have accelerated since 2016.[18]  It is difficult to imagine a future where a ‘narrower-utility’ reserve is required. With the 2020 Force Structure showing little change to the capability and role of the Reserve until a ‘recapitalisation’ in 2030-2040,[19] now is the time to look forward and get our value proposition right. Now is the time to invest in learning not just what our American mates are doing, but other like-minded countries too.