Deliver Value, Not Overhead: The Navy Reserve Needs IMAs

Once a month, thousands of Navy reservists across the country re-create the wheel, duplicating the functions (administration, training, operations, etc.) of the active-duty units they exist to support. Billets within Navy Reserve Augmentation Units (NRAUs) constitute the vast majority of drilling reserve end strength.1 In theory, NRAUs “train together, but when mobilized, lose their unit identity and become part of an active component (AC) unit or activity.”2 In practice, NRAUs don’t mobilize as a unit. NRAUs exist not so much as lethal warfighting outfits but as pools of (mostly) deployable manpower to plug gaps in named contingency operations—with their own paperwork. . . lots of paperwork.

Internally focused administrative roles are highly valued in reserve augmentation units. They are often key development jobs necessary for promotion. Ambitious officers gravitate to functions that, first and foremost, propagate the existence of the reserve unit as a separate entity, rather than deliver tangible value to the supported command and the broader Fleet. Promotion boards reward administrators rather than warriors and subject-matter experts; and the institution will get what it rewards. These perverse incentives are even more perplexing when one notes that sailors from RAUs are typically mobilized to augment active-component units and joint task forces, specifically for their specialized warfare abilities, not their reserve unit management skills. Perhaps this is why the Design for Maintaining Maritime Supremacy 2.0 includes as a specified task to “better align our Navy Reserves to fleet and warfighting, instead of administrative roles.” Here is one line of effort to accomplish just that.

A Parallel Path
For experienced sailors who want to remain operationally focused there is hope: the Individual Mobilization Augmentee (IMA) program.3 The IMA model—used successfully and widely by the Army, Marines, and Air Force—provides significant advantages as a complement to NRAUs and would operationalize several of the “Ready to Win” Navy Reserve Action Plan concepts. It should be expanded in the Navy beyond its limited use for Navy Emergency Preparedness Liaison Officers. As a pilot, 15 percent of Information Warfare Community billets should be divested from NRAUs and converted to IMA billets.

While the IMA program would only be open to experienced, prior-active service officers and NCOs,4 those sailors would spend more time focused on designator and rate-specific work rather than organizational overhead. Assuming a transitioning AC sailor enjoys the mission, she likely will be more inclined to affiliate with the reserve component (RC) if offered opportunities for meaningful contributions rather than paperwork orchestration. The Navy benefits from the significant training and experience such sailors bring to the table, leveraging their time and talents to augment the operational mission of active units. This honors the basic theory of comparative advantage: while an intelligence officer may make a good part-time admin officer, given her training and military experience to date (and possibly current civilian employment), she probably makes an even better part-time intelligence collector or analyst—the essential functions that are in high demand during contingency operations, and the raison d'etre of the reserves.

There are no reserve unit commanding officers in the IMA. Instead, as in the Air Force, “active duty personnel within the major command retain primary responsibility for managing IMA program operations.”5 Freeing reservists from having to hit command- and SEL-track wickets will drive more focused preparation for warfighting and contingency operations. Other advantages include:

Speed of execution. In the past two decades, the Navy Reserve has had the luxury of mobilization notifications months in advance, often relieving someone already on station, and generally with some amount of face-to-face turnover. High-end conflict against a peer competitor will not be so convenient. IMAs will have the required enablers (accounts, accesses, and so forth) in place and ready to perform a pre-defined mission.
Time on station: IMAs frequently spend longer with their units than the two- or three-year tours executed at NRAUs. Marine IMAs, for example, can spend up to five consecutive years in a billet. Success over time builds competency and trust between the command and the reservist.
Scheduling flexibility: Most NRAUs require members to report once a month on a set weekend, often paying travel expenses out of pocket. In contrast, IMAs are mostly free to schedule annual training and drill periods on days that are convenient for both the member and the supported command. This is a better fit for many reservists’ civilian careers and for supported commands.
Cost-neutral: Converting traditional NRAU billets to IMAs can be done with minimal cost. IMA pay and entitlements are the same.
The IMA program is not without risks. Primarily, there are few lifelines in the IMA program to prevent a member from getting swept away from the tide of requirements to which they are still obliged, such as annual fitness reports, physical readiness tests, health exams, etc.  Moreover, knowledge and motivation to adhere to some reserve-specific policies and processes may vary among AC commands. However, the reporting senior for an IMA member resides within the AC command. A wise IMA will lighten the burden, and commands who desire continued support will invest the time to set expectations with the reservist. Moreover, IMAs might hazard their chances for promotion and advancement. Officers may not promote past O-5 unless IMA tours are combined with time in traditional NRAUs. The Marine Reserve IMA instruction explicitly discourages back-to-back IMA tours, and encourages rotations between the IMA program and traditional Selected Marine Corps Reserve units to enhance professional knowledge and further develop career progression.6 Even the lack of such rotations and potential for command may be an acceptable career risk for many dedicated professionals, similar to the Navy’s Professional Flight Instructor Program.

While successful IMAs must be more proactive and engaged than is required by traditional drilling reservists, the increased proficiency, expertise, lethality, and efficiency of the IMA model demands its rapid expansion within the Navy Reserve.7

1 The drilling reserve includes the Selected Reserves and Voluntary Training Units and excludes the Individual Ready Reserve Active Status Pool and the Standby Reserves.

2 DoDI 1215.06

3 JP 1-02 defines IMAs as “An individual reservist attending drills who receives training and is preassigned to an Active Component organization, a Selective Service System, or a Federal Emergency Management Agency billet that must be filled on, or shortly after, mobilization.” The IMA program is governed by Department of Defense Instruction 1235.11.

4 Army IMA billets for example, are only coded for E-5 and above and O-3 and above.

5 Air Force Instruction 38-201, dated 30 January 2014.

6 Marine Corps Order 1001.62B, dated 01 February 2018.

7 The onus is on the member rather than a unit to ensure periodic health assessments, leadership training, and other requirements remain complete and current.