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)