Total Force Concept

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The Total Force Concept is a doctrine created by Chief of Staff of the Army Creighton Abrams, and Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird, as one way to avoid entanglements, without widespread public support, such as the Vietnam War. It reflected some of the opinions legislated as the War Powers Resolution. As opposed to the Weinberger-Powell Doctrine, which are criteria for decisionmaking, Total Force was structural.

The mechanics of Total Force moved most of the combat support and combat service support functions of the Army — the units required for sustained operations — into the Reserve Components: the United States Army Reserve and the Army National Guard (United States).

It now includes military retirees, DOD civilian personnel, contractor personnel, and force multipliers such as employer and community support.Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; invalid names, e.g. too many

Original motivation

In a 2004 study, Jones suggests that the purpose of the doctrine, to General Abrams was an attempt conserve the force structure, especially going into an all-volunteer army, and to organize the Reserve Component forces appropriately.[1]. He contends that there are two widespread but incorrect assumptions about the motivation for the policy.

At the time, it took a substantial Congressional action to activate the Reserves. Reserve components, however, have played a significant role in the modern wars of the United States, with one full and one partial exception. Reserve components were not activated for the Vietnam War. While Reserve units were not activated for the Korean War, many individual reservists, not assigned to units, were activated. [2]

Carafano wrote that the main purpose was to avoid "blank checks" such as the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution[3], and that Total Force complemented the Congressional initiative of the War Powers Resolution. Both were "tripwires" against excessive commitments solely by a President. Jones states that the purposes of limiting Presidential power and ensuring public support were after-the-fact interpretations and are actually incorrect. A third function, "limiting prolonged combat", however, is a "desired associated outcome".

Gulf and Iraq Wars

The Authorization for the Use of Military Force that forms the basis for the Iraq War, however, has led to a situation of prolonged combat. In December 2002, after the end of high-intensity operations in Afghanistan, then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said Secretary of Defense complained that the Total Force policy was “hampering his ability to deploy forces”. On July 9, 2003, he sent out a Department of Defense Memorandum directing a review of the composition of the Active and Reserve Components.

Some review may well be in order, due to changes in the nature of U.S. combat forces and equipment. In the Abrams reorganization, the number of Army divisions, then the basic operational unit, remained constant, but an average of one-third of the combat arms component went into the National Guard as a "round-out brigade". Combat support and combat service support units, needed for prolonged combat, went into the Army Reserve. When the round-out brigades were activated for the 1991 Gulf War, probably due to the increased complexity of military hardware and doctrine, and the need for more intensive training in the past, the brigades were not combat-ready within 60 days. [4]

Combat service and combat service units from the reserve components, however, performed well.[5] Several factors may have been involved with these units. Most support units do not need the near-reflexive reactions of combat forces. Reflexive is a deliberate term; one of the changes in U.S. combat training is the deliberate introduction of operant conditioning. Civilian skills may be comparable to the skills in a support unit. While there will be detailed variations, nursing, vehicle repair, and finance personnel are apt to practice their skills in daily life.


Recently, the restructuring of the United States Army has changed the key "unit of action" from the division to a brigade. There are "brigade combat teams" that indeed approach the lethality of an older division, and other types of brigades that facilitate the operation of the combat brigades. Attempts to convert some of the National Guard brigades with combat functions into units with supporting functions have not been politically popular. The National Guard of the United States has a dual line of reporting: until "federalized" by presidential order, they are under the control of the individual states, and indeed have been valuable assets in domestic disasters. There are interstate agreements by which one state governor can request assistance from the Guard of another state, as, for example, Louisiana called on the California and Oregon Guard after Hurricane Katrina. These units were not federalized.

As one National Guard Adjutant General, the senior officer for each state put it when it was proposed to convert a heavy (i.e., made up of armored fighting vehicles) to a noncombat role, "We like our tanks". The political issues involved have not resolved, and are unlikely to resolve until the George W. Bush administration leaves office and the Iraq War becomes less of a demand on resources.


  1. Jones, Brian (May 3, 2004), The Abrams Doctrine Total Force Foundation or Enduring Fallacy?, U.S. Army War College
  2. Sullivan, Timothy I. (March 18, 2005), The Abrams Doctrine Is It Viable and Enduring in the 21st Century?, Strategic Studies Institute, U.S. Army War College
  3. Carafano, James Jay (April 18, 2005), "The Army Reserves and the Abrams Doctrine: Unfulfilled Promise, Uncertain Future", Heritage Foundation
  4. Scales, Robert H. & Robert H., Jr. Scales (1994), Certain Victory: The U.S. Army in the Gulf War, Brassey's
  5. Pagonis, William G. & Jeffrey L. Cruikshank (1994), Moving Mountains: Lessons in Leadership and Logistics from the Gulf War, Harvard Business Press