The Australian Army comprises nearly 49,000 soldiers, with around 28,300 being full time and 20,700 Army Reservists. It is well known and acknowledged that the readiness, skill level, and competency of the regular full-time force is much greater than its part time equivalent; however, this article will argue that the potential of the part time workforce is not being realised by failing to more regularly employ them as formed units on operations.

The ADF recently ended its longest conflict in Afghanistan, lasting nearly two decades, during which some units and soldiers deployed multiple times. According to the 2016 Defence White Paper, around 18 percent of all ADF personnel who deployed on operations between 1999 and 2016 were reservists.

Research by Crompvoets (2013) found that Australian reservists serving in Iraq and Afghanistan between 2002 and 2012 contributed in a variety of specialist capacities, including as mechanics, logisticians, engineers, doctors, nurses, and lawyers. With the exception of 1st Commando Regiment, which deployed six times to Afghanistan in a war fighting role, reservists weren’t deployed in large numbers as formed units or sub-units for combat roles in Afghanistan and the Middle East Area of Operations.

A study by Smith and Jans (2011) found that, “Part-time forces have taken many different forms and have often struggled to find a clear and useful role in the defence of the nation whether in war or peace, particularly given a long-lasting policy restricting their employment outside Australia.”

So, the question arises: apart from Reserve Special Forces, could Army Reserve units reliably perform the job of deploying as formed units into high-intensity conflict zones alongside regular forces? The UK’s utilisation of Territorial Army (TA) units in recent conflicts may help answer this question.

Fisher and Stewart (2007) found that UK TA soldiers who deployed into high intensity conflict zones with only six weeks of lead up training were able to perform to a high standard during the deployment. A study by Kirke (2008) highlighted that the significant barrier in integrating TA forces with the British Regular Army was trust, and that this could be established more easily if the TA and regular units had trained together and participated in social events.

What are our allies and partners doing?

Our closest allies and partners, the US and UK, do not distinguish between their regular active-duty forces and their National Guard and Reserves in terms of utilisation. Both nations consistently deployed Reserve soldiers in large numbers as formed units to Iraq and Afghanistan.

According to US Department of Defense, the US deployed around 775,000 troops to Afghanistan. Around 45 percent of the troops were from the National Guard and Reserves. Of the 2300 soldiers who died and the 20,589 wounded in action in Afghanistan, around 18 percent of these were National Guard and Reserve soldiers.

The conflict in Iraq saw over 590,000 US National Guard and reservists required to serve. The Reserve contribution peaked at 40 percent of total US force numbers in 2004, when state-based National Guard units provided over half of Army’s combat personnel. The former chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, retired US Navy Admiral Mike Mullen stated that, "We would not be anywhere close to where we are in terms of our execution of mission without the National Guard.”

UK TA members also deployed to Bosnia and Kosovo in 1995 and later to Afghanistan and Sierra Leone. More than 12,000 UK TA and Reservists served in the Iraq conflict, contributing 12 percent of all personnel in the warfighting phase.

ADF use of reservists in combat roles

In the ANU (2013) report titled ‘Exploring Future Service Needs of Australian Defence Force Reservists’, Donnelly (2006) is quoted as saying, ‘Finding a new concept for Reserve forces is today the single most important organisational issue for all countries and armed forces in order to develop their capability to deal with security threats’ and that, 'It will also require armed forces to give new priority and status to Reserves so that they are no longer viewed as the “poor relation” within the overall force structure.'

In addition to the 1st Commando Regiment reservists who served in Afghanistan, reservists did deploy to East Timor in formed groups. In 2000, 200 members were used to reinforce the 6th Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment (RAR), and a Reserve infantry company was integrated with 5/7 RAR for six months in 2002. The Reserve units deploying to East Timor received extensive training prior to their deployment and no significant issues regarding the soldiers' capabilities compared to Regular forces have been recorded.

In many of the wars and conflicts Australia has fought in, the soldiers involved were predominantly citizen soldiers. These citizen soldiers performed very well on the battlefield, which created our much-valued Anzac culture and the heroes that today’s soldiers look up to and revere.

Future utilisation of reservists

The CDF, Lieutenant General Angus Campbell, has stated that,

“a key change concerns the way in which we think about the wider utility of the Reserve. For some decades we have been moving away from the strategic rationale of the Reserve purely as a mobilisation base. Moving away from thinking of it as a separate part of the Army, or even a separate Army, whose purpose was only to generate capability in extremis. In the ‘Total Force’ model the Reserve contributes to capability in all of our endeavours to defend Australia and secure its national interests.”

The CDF also stated that change to the Reserves is required to acknowledge the significant strategic challenges of our times. The Defence Strategic Review (2023) states,

“The ADF Reserves must not just complement the total Defence workforce but also provide the expansion base for the ADF in times of crisis. In order to achieve such an effect, Defence needs to investigate innovative ways to adapt the structure, shape and role of the Reserves.” One of the recommendations of the review is to ensure, “a comprehensive strategic review of the ADF Reserves, including consideration of the reintroduction of a Ready Reserve Scheme to be conducted by 2025.”

Smith and Jans (2011) state that the importance of Reserves has re-emerged in the post-Cold War era, and that despite the challenge of juggling civilian employment with Reserve commitments, most reservists appear to welcome a greater, rather than a token, obligation to serve. They argue that the more reservists can be directed toward roles that are higher risk, shorter notice, and more distant – the more they will contribute to the ADF’s overall capabilities.


Integrating Reserve units or sub-units with ARA units during warlike conflicts and training should be considered if and when opportunities arise to gain valuable operational experience. The US and UK moved to a model of full integration of Reserve forces into combat roles many years ago. Adopting the same approach would align Australia with our major allies and partners.