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World's Largest Armies - Reserves

One methodological problem in calculating the size of an army relates to the distinction between active forces and reserves. Armies generally include both full time soldiers who are currently on active duty, as well as soldiers who are not on active duty, but in reserve. Reserve soldiers typically have prior military service, and may subsequently receive some amount of refresher training on a regular basis. The theory is that reserves may be recalled to active duty when needed, but that their full-time service is not required on a continuing basis. There are various categories of reserve troops, some of whom are associated with specific units, while others are part of what in the United States is called the Individual Ready Reserve.

All of this was made necessary following the Napoleonic Wars, in which large mass armies replaced small professional armies. While small professional armies could be maintained in peacetime, large mass armies could not. So measures where needed to facilitate the transition from a small peacetime establishment to a vastly larger nation in arms.

It is a bit challenging to sort through all the various flavors of reserves associated with the US Army, and even more challenging to understand the reserves in other countries. In the United Kingdom, from 1689 the regular standing army has been maintained on a legal footing by means of annual Acts known down to 1881 as Mutiny Acts, while the army reserve was first created in 1859 by the Reserve Forces Act. Auxiliary forces may be defined as all troops which undergo actual military training without being constantly under arms, and in Great Britain these were until 1908 represented by the Militia, the Yeomanry and the Volunteers, and later by the Territorial Force and the Special Reserve.

By the time of the Great War, in a country in which recruiting was by voluntary enlistment the classification was, of course, very different from that prevailing in a conscript army. The various "lines" were usually composed of separate organizations; the men were recruited upon different engagements, and received a varying amount of training. Of the men not permanently embodied, only the reserve of the active army actually served a continuous term with the colours. Other troops, called by various appellations, of which "militia" may be taken as generic, went through their military training at intervals.

The general lines of army organization at the time of the Great War in the case of a country recruiting by universal service were as follows. The male population was divided into classes, by ages, and the total period of liability to service was usually about 25 years. Thus at any given time, assuming two years' colour service, the men of 20 and 21 years of age would constitute the active army serving with the colours, those of 22 and 23, the reserve. The second line army would consist of all men who had been through the active army and were now aged 24 to 36. The third line would similarly consist of men whose ages were between 36 and 44. Assuming the same annual levy, the active army would consist of 200,000 men, its reserve 200,000, the second line of 1,300,000, and the third of 800,000. Thus of 2,500,000 men liable to, and trained for, military service, 200,000 only would be under arms at any given time. The simple system here outlined is of course modified and complicated in practice.

In war, the reserves increased the field armies to 400,000 men, the whole or part of the second line would be called up and formed into auxiliary regiments, brigades and divisions, and in case of necessity the third line would also called upon, though usually this would only in the last resort and for home defence only to repell invasion. The proportion of reservists to men with the colours varied of course with the length of service. Thus in France or Germany, with two years' service in force, half of the rank and file of a unit in war would be men recalled from civil life.

The true military value of reservists was often questioned, and the value of reservists has in many respects declined over time. From the time of the Napoleonic Wars to the Second World War, armies were mainly infantry formations. While some training in marching in formation and marksmanship was required, and while uniforms and rifles needed to be supplied, the transition from peace to war was plausible. Subsequent to the Second World War, the began to change, as weapons and the skills needed to operate them became more complex, as the time required to attain and retain battle proficiency increased, and as the time available to transition from peace to war diminished.

During the Cold War it appeared that a major land war in Europe might errupt with unexpected suddenness, and conclude in a matter of days or weeks. In this standing-start scenario, reserves would play little or no role, though risk adverse military planners on both sides of the Iron Curtain continued to maintain various types of reserve formations.

The Soviet Union had the world's most elaborate system of wartime mobilization. Soldiers retained a reserve obligation until age fifty. For officers, the reserve obligation extended to sixty-five. Thus, Western specialists estimated that over 50 million males were reservists. In 1989 the Soviet Union had about 9 million servicemen who had been discharged from active duty in the preceding five years. Only 3 million of them would be needed to bring all active Ground Forces divisions to full strength in less than three days. Western analysts speculated that large numbers of additional divisions could be created within two to three months using civilian trucks and large stockpiles of older weapons and equipment. It was not certain that the system would be as impressive in action as it was on paper.

The size of the active ground forces at the command of Moscow has shrivelled from about 2,000,000 in 1985 to about 350,000 today. The thrifty Soviets never threw anything away, and the Russian army has continued these habits. Today's ground forces include numerous Armament and Equipment Storage Bases, basically brigade sets of equipment without associated troops, so if an extra couple of millions soldiers showed up on day, they would not be wanting in equipment.

Some countries have reserves that are nominally quite large relative to the active force. With an active duty ground force of 395,000 soldiers, Russia claims to have reserves of 20,000,000. Whether this number actually means anything is subject to debate, as less than half the active force are contract soldiers in "permanent readiness units", while the other half are conscripts serving 12 month tours of duty [mainly consisting of the dregs of Russian society who were too stupid to evade the draft]. Other countries, such as France and Germany, have reserve forces that are only a small fraction of the active force. By the end of the Cold War, reserve forces comprised over half of the wartime strengthof the armies of NATO member nations.

The composition, organization, training levels of reserve forces vary widely. For example, some countries, like the Netherlands and Germany, have standing cadre units which would have to be brought up to wartime strength by mobilizing reservists. Other countries, such as the United States, have a number of whole combat formations made up entirely of reserve component soldiers.

The point of this extended disquisition on reserves is that in practice, at present reserves are almost never activated, with a few notable exceptions. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan demonstrated the reality of the Total Force United States Army [560,000 guard and reserve], as the primary distinction between active and reserve components was the frequency with which soldiers deployed. In Britain, the Territorial Army has performed a similar role since 1998, and the 14,000 troops of the Territorial Army should be counted with the 102,000 troops of the regular Army. As of 2012 the South Korean [ROK] military force structure consisted of 522,000 active duty personnel [down from 672,000 in 2009] and 719,000 First Combat Forces [Mobilization Reserve Forces] active reserve personnel [2009 estimate]. Additionally, upon full mobilization, approximately 3.04 million reserve personnel Regional Combat Fores [Homeland Reserve Forces] can be called upon. Singapore's Total Defence posture combines a small, well-equipped regular armed forces with an Army of 50,000 soldiers backed up by a large, well-trained military reserve of 300,000 that could be quickly mobilized. The combat readiness of Israeli reserves [500,000] has never been seriously questioned, and the combat potential of the Swiss Army [120,000 reserves] upon mobilization may be assumed. This seems to be the short list of countries with reserve forces consisting of fully equiped combat formations.

Austria had a simlar posture that of Switzerland, with small active component to be augmented by a vast reserve, but the reserve force seems to have fallen into disuse in recent years. The Austrian Minister of Defense and Sport is the Minister of Defense and Sport, suggesting the two activities have about equal weight. While Austria retains conscription, the period of service is only six months, about enough time for some physical training, marksmanship practice, and basic soldierization. Some might call this compulsory free summer camp.

As for the rest, little need be said. The closer one looks, the less one sees. Taiwan, for instance, has a reserve force of some 2.8 million soldiers, and plans to retain compulsory military service after the year 2014, but with only four months of duty. But these soldiers seem to be more akin to the American Individual Ready Reserve, and there do not appear to be peacetime units such as are found in the US Army National Guard. If these reserve forces have any appreciable associated heavy equipment, it is not in evidence. Poorly trained, disorganized straight-leg infantry has little place on a modern battlefield.

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Page last modified: 24-09-2013 16:17:48 ZULU