Courtesy Coast Guard Reservist Magazine
When we stood up the Assistant Commandant for Reserve (CG-R) two years ago, Vice Adm. Dan Abel, then the Deputy Commandant for Operations, said, “When the nation needs a ready force, they go to the Coast Guard. When the Coast Guard needs a ready ‘break glass’ force, they rely on the Coast Guard reserve.”
And he’s right. Unlike the services within the Department of Defense (DoD), the Coast Guard does not have an active duty garrison force to rely upon to surge to meet emerging operational needs. Instead, as outlined in the recently promulgated Doctrine for the U.S. Coast Guard Reserve (Publication R), the Coast Guard reserve serves as “an agile force in garrison” that is “trained locally and deployed globally to meet Coast Guard mission requirements.” The question is, which mission requirements are we training toward, how long do those missions need to be sustained, and how many people do we need to do that work?
But I’m getting ahead of myself. To understand where the reserve is going, we must understand how we got where we are. Since the end of the Cold War, the Coast Guard reserve, as a military component, has flexed around current Coast Guard operational needs, adapting itself to assist with the service’s current priorities.
After the Exxon Valdez oil spill, the reserve focused on environmental response missions in preparation for future spills. After the attacks of 9/11, the reserve shifted focus to become more adept at law enforcement and port security adding two port security units and increasing overall end strength to 8,100. When the Deepwater Horizon oil spill occurred, we put additional focus on incident management training to better address large, complicated, multi-agency responses.
Today we are faced with increasingly complex contingency needs: from larger and more frequent natural disasters, to supporting interagency needs, to building cyber resilience, to remaining ready to address the threat of domestic and international terrorism. We’ve also seen an increase in non-traditional, interagency, contingency support requirements (e.g., southern border, COVID-19, etc.). These emerging mobilization needs, coupled with expanded internal support needs including implementation and pending expansion of the parental leave program, require us to take a deeper look at ourselves and baseline what the Coast Guard reserve is designed to do.
To be clear, the reserve has been extremely successful in rapidly adapting to changing circumstances. But this is a flawed system where the reserve catches up to the rervice’s need… eventually. We need to be more deliberate in our planning, especially given the limitations of the traditional reserve drill schedule of 36 days per year.
Working with intention starts with the basics. In 2019, Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Karl Schultz asked Rear Adm. Todd Wiemers, the first Assistant Commandant for Reserve, “How big should the reserve be?”
Sounds simple enough, but it’s a tough question to answer without knowing all of the parameters. Simply stated, you can’t tell someone how many people you need on your team until you know what game you’ll be playing, and that’s where the Reserve Requirements Generation System (RGS) comes into play.
A process for identifying need
RGS is a repeatable process that determines the mission activities the reserve component (RC) is expected to build to meet the Commandant’s needs as outlined in Coast Guard strategic direction. Identifying our intentions helps us get in at the ground floor of the budget process so that the Coast Guard can make fully informed, risk-based, budget decisions.
The process starts with determining what the reserve is expected to do. Does the reserve need to be ready to deploy port security units? Does it need to be ready to respond to a spill of national significance? Does it need to be ready to respond to a pandemic? Does it need to be ready to respond to all three? At the same time? For how long?
This is what we’re talking about when we’re talking about requirements. The number of people needed to perform required work is merely a by-product of the requirement itself.
For example, the number of reservists required to perform boat operations during an increase in maritime security level will change as the Coast Guard adjusts platforms, competencies, and tactics. The requirement (boat operations) remains stable while the number of people needed to do that mission may change.
CG-R collaborated with headquarters program managers and field commanders to do exactly that, coming up with a mix of operational and support mission activities. These were then modeled using the Coast Guard Force Planning Construct (FPC) to determine the workforce needs of the reserve. In layman’s terms, FPC figured out how many people it takes to do specific mission activities given current legal authorities, platforms, policies, etc. It then looked at how many full time (active or civilian) personnel are available to do that mission and assigned unmet requirements to the reserve.
It isn’t enough just to know what you want the reserve to do, and how big it should be. CG-R also works with operational capability managers and program managers to identify what’s needed to train reservists in the prescribed competencies. Our personnel needs include C-schools, platforms, and home units with enough training capacity to support the people who live in the local area.
RGS can be a complicated process, and rightly so. When the Coast Guard calls on its reserve to be ready, we want to be there, unequivocally. In times of crisis, the service shouldn’t have to guess what the RC is designed to do, what it is ready to do, and how long it can support that need. With RGS, we provide a clear picture to leadership at the highest levels.
The decision point
As noted, CG-R has been working with stakeholders around the Coast Guard to build scalable options based on our FPC modeling. In fact, it was senior active duty flag officers at the areas and headquarters that selected the final set of mission activities to be presented to the Commandant for decision in early 2022. This will shape the reserve of the future.
Establishing RC requirements will serve as the reserve “program of record”, essentially treating the RC as an asset, like a class of cutters. While this is an imperfect metaphor, it does help to put the work we are doing into a standard construct to facilitate discussion of cost and risk inside the Coast Guard, as well as with the Department and Congress.
To be successful, we need to thoroughly understand our requirements so that we can build a multi-year capital investment plan that includes the full cost of fielding a capable and ready reserve. This approach also requires us to have a more thorough understanding of risk which is something we have not formally documented to a large degree in the past.
Initially, risk management will be more of a Commandant-level “gut check,” but will ultimately become a more mature sub-process within RGS that provides a clearer picture of risk based on our operational readiness to meet required capabilities. This will help ensure we understand what it takes to fully fund the right force to meet the needs of the service and adequately protect the nation.
Rinse and repeat
The Requirements Generation System is more than just defining the service’s requirements. It’s a system that’s repeatable and consistent. And, like any cycle, the future of RGS activities will be based on our past—this is crucial as we prepare to be ready for whatever the world throws at us next. We don’t want to consistently be in “catch up mode”. Yes, our organizational ability to rapidly adapt to any situation is an asset. But, maintaining a force to meet yesterday’s missions and evolving in real time instead of constantly looking forward is short sighted and risky.
For example, if we change a platform, we will need to check our requirements to see what impact that change has. It may require more people, it may require an adjustment to our training process, it may relieve us of the need to even have that capability in the RC in the first place. Without a process that forces us to take those regular self-assessments, we risk having the wrong skills, in the wrong amounts, at the wrong time.
The most difficult aspect of RGS will be maintaining awareness of all the inputs and effectively engaging all of the many process stakeholders. From headquarters to individual commands, we need to ensure there is clear understanding of what the Commandant’s priorities are, what the RC is designed to do (and why), how ready the RC is to do those things, and what our risks are. All of this ensures the Commandant has all the information needed to make fully informed decisions on how best to shape and employ this critical workforce.
This is a generational change; and more importantly, it’s a culture change, and it takes time. As Coast Guard operations ebb and flow with the needs of the nation, the Reserve’s dependable support will follow. Preparedness is part of our motto—and our ultimate goal.