Reservists in modern warfare

In many armed forces‭, ‬the reserve forces‭’ ‬leadership is traditionally tasked with responsibilities both during peacetime and wartime‭. ‬During peacetime‭, ‬reserve force leadership typically organizes and trains reserve units‭, ‬recruits new members‭, ‬and prepares mobilization plans‭, ‬their adoption‭, ‬and execution‭. ‬The goal is to maintain the military’s ability to mobilize its reserves rapidly under any circumstances‭. ‬Therefore‭, ‬mobilization is not just about activating latent military capabilities‭; ‬it represents a‭ ‬comprehensive national defence effort with implications for the entire population of a country‭.‬

Moreover‭, ‬mobilization involves planning to integrate civil defence units and civilian contractors into military operations‭, ‬preparing defence industrial facilities‭, ‬vital infrastructure‭, ‬and relevant civilian defence companies‭.‬

During wartime‭, ‬reserve force leadership assumes responsibility for providing mobilized reserve forces to operational commanders‭.‬

Over the past two decades‭, ‬many major armies‭, ‬especially Western ones‭, ‬have developed their technological capabilities‭, ‬believing that this alone would ensure a high degree of dominance over their adversaries‭. ‬This led to a shift towards increased use of costly technology and reduced reliance on the human element‭, ‬forgetting its pivotal role in the operational superiority of armies‭. ‬In reality‭, ‬there can be no possible victory without a human presence and in substantial numbers‭.‬

This study discusses how reservists are utilized in modern warfare‭, ‬using the ongoing Russian-Ukrainian war as a model‭. ‬It highlights the most important lessons learned from it and concludes by presenting the most critical choices for armies to organize and employ reservists‭.‬

Utilizing Reservists in Modern Warfare‭: ‬The Russian-Ukrainian War as a Model

Both the Russian and Ukrainian militaries drew from the Soviet culture of employing reservists in warfare‭, ‬with the core idea being mass mobilization and the integration of as many civilians into the military as quickly as possible‭. ‬Over time‭, ‬and due to the dissolution of the Soviet Union and Ukraine’s subsequent independence in the early 1990s‭, ‬the models diverged‭.‬

Before 2014‭, ‬Ukrainian reservist mobilization was modest‭, ‬relying on a limited but highly qualified pool of reservists‭, ‬aligning‭ ‬with Western practices‭. ‬However‭, ‬following Russia’s annexation of Crimea‭, ‬the situation changed dramatically‭, ‬evolving towards‭ ‬an attempt to mobilize all capable citizens‭, ‬leading to the concept of the‭ “‬armed nation‭.”‬

Concerning the Russian military‭, ‬the difficulties it faced in Georgia in 2008‭ ‬led to deep organizational reforms in the mobilization of reservists‭, ‬emphasizing the quality and training of reservists over their quantity‭.‬

Studies in this field indicate that the new policies adopted by both the Russian and Ukrainian armies couldn’t fully achieve their objectives before the outbreak of the recent Russian-Ukrainian war in 2022‭.

While the Kremlin aims to keep Russian civilians away from the conflict to maintain their support‭, ‬the Ukrainian government seeks to mobilize the entire Ukrainian nation in defence of its territory‭. ‬This has led to different strategies for utilizing reservists‭.‬

Despite fundamental shortcomings such as equipment shortages and inadequate training‭, ‬the Ukrainian reserve forces often bolstered the Ukrainian Army with crucial manoeuvring capabilities‭. ‬Some of these capabilities played a vital role in halting or slowing down the Russian advancement‭, ‬as their strength increased with the war’s progression‭.‬

Key Lessons from the Russian-Ukrainian War on the Utilization of Reservists‭:‬

1‭- At the Organizational Level‭:‬‭ ‬Long before the 2022‭ ‬attack‭, ‬each Ukrainian region established recruitment offices within its administrative structure‭, ‬along with a network of conscription centres responsible for absorbing volunteers and reservists‭.‬

This network‭, ‬based on local authorities‭, ‬established a strong and close connection with the civilian population‭, ‬facilitating the rapid and effective engagement of volunteers in military service‭.‬

However‭, ‬despite these structures‭, ‬men were not adequately trained or equipped‭. ‬When the attack began‭, ‬Ukrainian defence forces‭ ‬were still in the process of training and equipping a core force of 10,000‭ ‬reservists‭. ‬These forces lacked basic training‭, ‬communication and individual protection equipment and vehicles‭.‬

Nevertheless‭, ‬even if these units were not necessarily suitable for full integration into the Ukrainian military‭, ‬over time‭, ‬they contributed to successfully countering the Russian attack on the northern front toward Kyiv‭, ‬as well as in the Sumy‭, ‬Chernihiv‭, ‬Kharkiv‭, ‬Luhansk‭, ‬Donetsk‭, ‬Zaporizhia‭, ‬and Mykolaiv regions‭.‬

However‭, ‬the well-integrated‭, ‬efficient military structure within Ukrainian civilian society was not without flaws‭. ‬This negatively affected leadership centralization‭. ‬By the end of 2021‭, ‬the Ukrainian reserve leadership lacked an integrated operational command structure‭; ‬it relied on the Ministry of Internal Affairs and local administrations‭.‬

The unification of regional brigade command structures under the Chief of the Ukrainian General Staff’s orders was planned to be‭ ‬completed in January 2022‭, ‬just before the direct Russian attack‭.‬

At the outset of the Russian attack‭, ‬communication and coordination with regular military units were less than ideal‭. ‬This hindered the Ukrainian military’s ability to effectively coordinate the independently and locally deployed reserve units in the field‭. ‬Although this provided considerable flexibility and resilience‭, ‬it also resulted in dispersed efforts‭. ‬

It took several months before Ukrainian reserve units were fully integrated into Ukrainian military plans and operations‭. ‬This serves as an important lesson for Western armies regarding the significance and necessity of a clear chain of command and control‭ ‬for reservists‭.‬

2- At the Tactical Level‭:‬‭ ‬The challenge for the regular Ukrainian military was to hold the front while awaiting the arrival of reserve units‭. ‬Even if these units were not fully prepared for high-intensity combat‭, ‬the Ukrainian military had to engage reserve units on the frontlines‭ ‬to avoid collapse‭.‬

In many instances‭, ‬these forces quickly demonstrated their ability to engage in high-intensity combat‭. ‬Moreover‭, ‬they displayed‭ ‬a remarkable capacity for adaptation and learning as the battlefield evolved‭.‬

One of the main strengths of Ukrainian reserve mobilization was the military leaders‭’ ‬ability to leverage the civilian backgrounds of these new fighters‭. ‬This allowed for innovative and diverse initiatives at the tactical levels‭, ‬which were not traditionally available within military structures‭. ‬For example‭, ‬reservists developed tablet-based artillery fire calculation programs‭, ‬which were distributed to Ukrainian forces‭.‬

3‭- At the Level of Balancing the Human Element and Advanced Technology‭: ‬One of the most crucial lessons from the Russian-Ukrainian war is that there can be no compromise in the human element’s density‭ ‬or advanced technology‭. ‬Balancing human density and technology must be calibrated according to the security and military challenges in context‭.‬

4‭- At the Strategic Planning Level‭:‬‭ ‬Investing in reservist forces as a deterrence tool is vital‭. ‬This involves reforming the conscription system‭, ‬which forms the basis of the reserve forces system‭, ‬increasing mobilization budgets‭, ‬conducting synchronized training in response to evolving threat environments‭, ‬expanding the scope of reservists‭’ ‬roles and responsibilities‭, ‬and learning from inspiring models‭.‬

Key Options for Organizing and Utilizing Reserve Soldiers

The following options are based on the lessons previously presented in this study‭.‬

Option 1‭: ‬Highly Trained Operational Reserves

Since the early intense clashes of the conflict‭, ‬both the Russian and Ukrainian armies suffered significant‭, ‬nearly incalculable‭ ‬losses‭. ‬To compensate for some of these losses‭, ‬both sides fortified their armies with reserve units designated for replenishment and reinforcement‭, ‬as planned‭. ‬They then made appropriate adjustments to the reserve system to adapt to the requirements and‭ ‬evolving nature of the war between them‭.‬

To renew or enhance operational forces‭, ‬the first option is to establish highly trained and well-equipped operational reserves that can be seamlessly integrated directly into combat units‭. ‬

However‭, ‬the primary limitation of this model remains equipment shortages‭, ‬as this option does not allow for an increase in manoeuvrability but only the preservation of the combat capabilities of the already participating units‭.‬

Option 2‭: ‬Reserves Capable of Independent Collective Maneuvering

This option involves building reserve forces capable of collective manoeuvring in a short time to support‭, ‬reinforce‭, ‬or alleviate pressure on active regular units‭. ‬Unlike the first option‭, ‬these units must be capable of engaging independently‭, ‬with the potential for integration into the chain of command later‭.‬

Option 3‭: ‬Military Reserves Covering the Entire Nation‭ ‬

This entails constructing an‭ “‬armed nation‭” ‬where civilians link their professional and personal lives to the commitment to protect and defend their country‭.‬

In this case‭, ‬there is no one-size-fits-all option‭; ‬and the context determines the optimal choice‭, ‬and each option has its advantages and drawbacks‭.‬


The Russian-Ukrainian conflict marked a turning point in the use of reserve forces by other nations‭. ‬For instance‭, ‬France set a‭ ‬goal of having one reserve soldier for every two active-duty soldiers‭. ‬This means 100,000‭ ‬reserve soldiers for an active-duty force of 200,000‭. ‬This goal was presented by the Minister of the Armed Forces‭, ‬Sébastien Le Cornu on November 21‭, ‬2022‭, ‬while working in a group tasked with preparing the Military Programming Law for 2024-2030‭.‬

President Emmanuel Macron reaffirmed this goal in his address to the armed forces on January 20‭, ‬2023‭.‬

Regarding the question of numerical density versus technology‭, ‬the Russian-Ukrainian war has demonstrated that sacrificing either can be fatal‭. ‬This poses a genuine dilemma even for major Western armies with limited financial resources‭, ‬in light of rising‭ ‬military equipment costs and societies becoming more closed to the demands of war‭.‬

The solution may lie in choosing an indicator that moves between the two options‭, ‬in selecting a single model while retaining the ability to reverse the decision in the medium term‭.‬

In any case‭, ‬it appears certain that although advanced technology is necessary‭, ‬it is not sufficient on its own and cannot replace the numerical density of soldiers‭. ‬Firstly‭, ‬for tactical reasons‭, ‬but also‭, ‬above all‭, ‬because there is no potential victory‭ ‬in an intense conflict without the entire state’s involvement in a state of war‭.‬

We conclude this study by shedding light on the well-established four-step roadmap for evaluating and developing reserve forces‭ ‬in academic literature‭:‬

1‭. ‬Assessment of the Reserve Forces‭’ ‬Structure‭, ‬Roles‭, ‬and Current Duties This is achieved by answering the following questions‭:‬

•‭ ‬Do the reserve forces have the capability for rapid mobilization in times of war‭?‬

•‭ ‬Do the reserve forces appear to be capable of effectively executing their specified tasks‭?‬

•‭ ‬Do the reserve forces possess the ability to evolve to adapt to the changing threat environment‭?‬

2‭. ‬Analysis of the Necessary Future Capabilities of the Reserve Forces

3‭. ‬Identification of the Required Empowerment Factors

4‭. ‬Recommendations for the Development and Optimal Utilization of the Reserve Forces‭.‬

‬By‭: ‬Prof‭. ‬Wael Saleh‭ (‬Expert at Trends Research‭ & ‬Advisory‭)‬

Al Jundi

Please use portrait mode to get the best view.