For the U.S. Army and Air Force, it is still far from their state-militia origins, but it could be a big step back to the beginning. After surging active forces to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the two armed services are considering restructuring and relying more on state-based National Guard units as a way to meet federal spending caps.

For Pentagon leaders, it is a reluctant—albeit viable—way to live with increasingly impenetrable annual spending ceilings under the 2011 Budget Control Act, which threatens nearly across-the-board cuts automatically.

But for state governors and delegations to Congress, the transition would be a welcome move to protect local jobs and economic benefits such as with Army National Guard Sikorsky UH-72A light utility helicopters or Air National Guard Alenia Aermacchi C-27J light airlifters. That is especially true as USAF leaders push for elimination of Guard-based weapons like the C-27J or A-10 to help meet the budget law's caps or its sequestration of funds (AW&ST Oct. 7, p. 54).

To be sure, the Guard will take a hit under the budget law, as will active and reserve forces. Under nascent plans revealed last month by the Army chief of staff, the service will fall from a wartime high of 570,000 active soldiers, 358,000 guardsmen and 205,000 in the reserves to no more than 420,000, 315,000 and 185,000, respectively. Altogether this represents a total Army end-strength reduction of more than 18% over seven years, with 26% and 9% reductions in active and reserve forces, and 12% in the Army National Guard.

Guardsmen, proponents assert, cost about one-third what an active soldier or airman costs—but that is because they are mobilized far less. Pentagon officials note that guardsmen cost the same regardless of whether they are activated; moreover, their training and equipment are provided by Washington. At the same time, less training and mobilization means lower readiness and proficiency.

Consequently, when pressed by lawmakers, Army Gen. Raymond Odierno, the chief of staff, explains why he is resisting calls to cut even more active soldiers while either cutting fewer guardsmen or even growing their ranks. “We're taking a 26% reduction in the active component and only 12% reduction in the National Guard, so I have taken [costs and capabilities] into consideration,” he says. “But to go further than that is very dangerous because you lose the immediate readiness that you have with the active component.

“I've got to have the right number of active and I've got to have the right depth that's provided by the National Guard and U.S. Army Reserve,” he continues. “It's not one or the other, and you can't compare costs because they provide different capabilities based on the dollars that they are given, obviously, and the time that they have to train.”

The Air Force chief of staff, Gen. Mark Welsh, agrees. “You just have to balance how far you can go in each mission area,” he says. “We're looking at a by-type aircraft [Guard or federal unit assignment] even within those mission areas, because you do hit a point where your operational capability or your ability to respond quickly are impacted. And it's different in every mission, from space to mobility to fighters.”

But the National Governors Association (NGA) remains unsatisfied. “Given that the Air National Guard also provides 35% of total Air Force capabilities for only 6% of the total Air Force budget, the governors believe more should have been done to leverage the National Guard's cost-effectiveness and high level of skill rather than continuing to view the Air National Guard as the bill-payer to protect the active component,” says Heather Hogsett, staff director for the NGA's Committee on Health and Homeland Security.

Like the U.S., the U.K. also is looking to lean more on its reserve units for the same reasons. Reservists form just 16% of British armed forces now, but in its long-awaited “white paper,” the 2010 Strategic Defense and Security Review, the defense ministry set out plans to make increased use of reserves. In its Army 2020 plans, part of its wider Future Force 2020 initiative, the ministry aims to reduce regular force levels to 82,000 and raise reservist numbers to 30,000, plowing almost $3 billion (£1.8 billion) into reservist operations—promising a higher level of training, much closer to the levels provided to regular troops.

The changes result from a need to provide capabilities that the regular British army cannot afford to sustain, such as medical specialties, but also the need to use specialists from the civilian workforce, in areas such as information technology. Still, the ministry faces a challenge in urging private employers to release the personnel required for operations given the burden of training and, increasingly, the shorter reaction times governments face when intervening domestically and internationally.

—With Tony Osborne in London