While most military recruits sign up for active or Reserve component duty for three or four years, their enlistment contracts actually obligate them to a total service agreement of eight years.
Troops who choose to hang up their uniforms short of eight years of service transition into the Individual Ready Reserve for the remainder of that commitment and serve as an emergency backup "force of last resort." The vast majority of IRR members are never called back to duty.
But all that could change if Reserve advocates gain traction on a new plan to significantly overhaul the way the IRR is managed, with a goal of making the historically disorganized component into a more integrated, reliable and useful part of the 'total force' in an era when the services are under pressure to reduce active-duty personnel strength and its associated high costs.
The Reserve Forces Policy Board, a federal advisory group, has suggested that a revamped IRR might seek to tap inactive veterans for a wider range of potentially short-term missions, creating a relationship similar to the private sector's use of part-time consultants.
The board is calling for new laws and policies that would redefine the IRR and the role of more than 250,000 young veterans who do not drill regularly or receive pay but have prior military service and are committed to mobilize in the event of a crisis.
The push comes at a time when the military is shrinking, defense budgets remain tight and the Pentagon is looking for ways to modernize the all-volunteer force and tap new sources of talent.
The IRR is "a pool of pre-trained, high-quality manpower that the American military has invested a lot of money in — and they are just sitting there," Arnold Punaro, chairman of the Reserve Forces Policy Board, said in an interview. "If we are looking at creating greater flexibility and maximizing the use of all talent, the IRR could play a very important role."
Punaro and the RFPB recently sent Defense Secretary Ash Carter a letter urging large-scale changes to the IRR that could include:
- Improving official tracking of individual IRR troops and their skills by modernizing personnel data systems.
- Possibly changing the laws governing when and how IRR troops are mobilized.
- Attaching IRR troops to traditional Reserve units.
- Offering IRR troops access to some level of Tricare health coverage and retirement benefits.
- Allowing IRR troops to freeze their high-year-tenure clocks to incentivize the possibility of resuming a career with the active or Select Reserve components.
In most cases, the military is able to fill any gaps in its manpower needs through the traditional Reserve components, known as the Selected Reserve, in which part-time troops are assigned to units, drill regularly and are often dubbed "weekend warriors."
But during severe personnel shortages, the IRR is tapped, too. During the peak years of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, about 30,000 soldiers and Marines from the IRR were mobilized for deployments. The most common occupational fields for which they were recalled were the combat arms, military police, vehicle operators, mechanics and engineers.
The Navy and Air Force also maintain IRRs, but have not mobilized large numbers of those personnel.
At the time of the Army and Marine Corps mobilizations, critics said the Pentagon was using the IRR as a "back-door draft" that disrupted the lives of veterans who were trying to assimilate into the civilian world and workforce and move on with their post-service lives. The Navy and Air Force maintain IRRs but have not mobilized large numbers.
Punaro said a first step toward revamping the IRR would be to simply figure out a better way to maintain basic contact with the extremely diffuse community of veterans with a remaining IRR commitment.
The Defense Department struggles to maintain an accurate database of IRR troops and their contact information because its personnel directorates use outdated database systems and do not share information with other government agencies such as the Internal Revenue Service. But now, new technology and social media tools should make that a manageable task.
A comprehensive, up-to-date and searchable database of IRR troops would allow the services to identify members with unique training, such as language skills, technical or cyber skills or advanced professional schooling, and tap them for short-term missions," Punaro said.
"Think of it as temporary manpower. Businesses go out and use temp manpower pools all the time. We don't really do that in the military that well," he said.
Assigning IRR members to Reserve units would help integrate them into the operational force more efficiently and effectively. In 2012, the Army began assigning troops who were separating and shifting into the IRR to specific Reserve units. Those personnel are not required to drill or even maintain contact with their assigned units, but it gives those veterans a military point of contact if needed, Army officials said.
Today's IRR troops do not receive a Common Access Card, a primary form of military identification, because they have access to few if any military benefits. The Reserve board suggests the Pentagon should give them a version of the access card to expedite integration if needed.
In the same vein, current law limits the use of IRR troops for specific high-demand contingency operations. But the Reserve board suggests moving to a policy that would "improve access to IRR personnel to support mission requirements in peacetime as well as contingencies," according to the letter to Carter.
To encourage troops to remain in the IRR, the Reserve board suggests offering them access to the same Tricare health benefits available to today's Selected Reserve members and possibly offering them credit toward retirement benefits in case they want to resume a military career in the active or Reserve components in the future.
The board's vision would require both high-level policy changes and approval from Congress, which defines the parameters of military duty statuses.
Suggesting greater use of the IRR is likely to get a mixed reaction from veterans in that component, said Jeffrey Phillips, executive director of the Reserve Officers Association.
The ROA is generally supportive of the proposed changes, but managing expectations is a primary concern, he said.
"There are some people who want to get back into the mix, but there are a lot of people who want to do other things with their lives. They want to start a family, they want to form a career as a manager. If they start going on deployments periodically, that could be a challenge for them," Phillips said in an interview.
"The Reserve component is not the active component, so you have to balance this use. I think the nation has to very soberly look at how it uses the Reserve components and not make it a proxy for the active component," he said.
Still, Phillips believes the IRR might allow the military to offer lateral entry to some highly skilled midcareer professionals, a issue the ROA has begun to raise with Pentagon officials in recent months.
For example, combatant commanders might want an economist, a regional expert or some other academic professional to deploy for a specific mission. And under current rules, there's no mechanism to allow that.
"There are people out there who have these kinds of credentials who would love to do this," Phillips said.
For years, the Pentagon has debated the proper role of its Reserve force, either as a Cold War-era "strategic" reserve that standing by for a World War III-style crisis or an "operational" reserve that mobilizes and deploys regularly, as it did during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.
Susan Lukas, the ROA's director of legislative affairs, said the new discussion of the IRR's future highlights a potentially new model, a "third way" that is not strictly strategic or operational, but perhaps more of a "part-time active" force.
She expressed confidence that reservists can adapt to that kind of new role if the parameters are clearly communicated.
"I think if you manage those expectations and let [IRR members] know when they go into the IRR that there will be a certain amount of expectations and a certain amount of training, then they will deal with that," Lukas said.
The Reserve board is not the only entity thinking in new ways about the IRR; that component is also the focus of a ongoing study by the Center for Naval Analyses, expected to be completed in February.
In recent years, the services have summoned some IRR troops to muster at local Reserve centers for one-day events for the purpose of updating their personnel information and undergoing health, fitness or readiness screenings.
IRR troops who face an actual recall to duty can submit paperwork seeking a delay or exemption by claiming personal or professional reasons.
In 2004, when the Army initially recalled more than 3,600 IRR troops to active duty to deploy to Iraq, about 30 percent applied for such delays or exemptions. For another 10 percent, the Army's initial notification via certified mail was returned because the address on file appeared to be outdated, officials said.
In keeping with the haphazard aura that has traditionally enveloped the IRR, even the military's legal authority to force IRR vets back into active duty is hazy.
Those troops are not typically subject to the Uniform Code of Military Justice, so it's unclear exactly how IRR recall notices can be enforced. During the spate of IRR mobilizations a few years ago, some veterans reportedly avoided the orders simply by passively ignoring them, refusing to answer their phones or sign certified letters.
In October 2014, many veterans were stunned to learn that President Obama signed an executive order authorizing the recall of IRR reservists in case they were needed for Operation United Assistance, the military mission to curtail spread of the Ebola virus in West Africa. That mission ended earlier than expected and no IRR troops were recalled.
But Punaro stressed that recalls for major contingency operations is not the only option for a future IRR.
Social media could allow the Pentagon to form the IRR into a far more tightly-knit community, and also could help ease the transition of those recently separated troops into civilian life by ensuring they're aware of their benefits and other support networks. It could also help the military target prior-service recruits or bring them into civilian jobs.
"You would not only want to keep track of where they are, you'd want to send them information," Punaro said. "Let's say you're in the Army IRR and you're getting a bachelor's degree with your GI Bill. Maybe they could say 'Here's an opportunity ... maybe we could use you at Fort Gordon (Georgia) and you could make a lot more money than you would with any other summer job."
That would be impossible today. "We are still in the Stone Age when it comes to using modern personnel management techniques," Punaro said.