Document created: 1 June 04
Air University Review, November-December 1972

The Total Force Concept

An Air Force View

Lieutenant Colonel Richard  J. Toner

In 1970 Secretary of Defense Melvin R. Laird initiated a policy that has resulted in widespread emphasis and interest in the reserve forces. A vital facet of Mr. Laird’s policy was that a “total force concept” would be applied in all aspects of planning, programming, manning, equipping, and employing guard and reserve forces. This added emphasis is causing concurrent consideration of the total U.S. military resources, active and reserve, in determining the most advantageous mix of forces to assure our national security. The policy is also resulting in a definite turning toward reliance on the reserve forces, rather than conscription, as the primary means of augmenting the active forces.

For many years prior to this revision in policy, the Air Force advocated and practiced the total force concept in considering the reserve components. In fact, USAF Planning Concepts, 1969-1984 used the term “total force” and described the concept in much the same words that were later written in the Secretary’s memorandum.

Since this initial promulgation, the view and application of the total force concept have broadened significantly. Within the following year the Secretary of Defense expanded upon his previously limited interpretation of the total force concept. For example, he requested the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to undertake an integrated assessment of our total force capabilities against the Soviet naval threat. He further posed the question: Under the total force concept, would it be possible and sensible to push for increased European contributions to ground and tactical air development programs? 

These various references to the concept have resulted in a multiplicity of interpretations of the term. Consequently, it will be the objective of this article to put the total force concept into perspective according to the view of the Air Force. To illustrate this view, some current and projected applications of the concept will be briefly discussed.

a three-dimensional view

In planning to meet the varied threats to our national security, as linked with the security of the free world, we have come to rely increasingly on the total resources available to us. The necessity of this approach is reinforced by the comparative reductions in Defense appropriations, the trend in government spending toward solving domestic problems, and the objective of the all-volunteer military service. Consequently, in our planning and programming activities, we must take a three-dimensional view of the total force: within the Air Force, considering both the active and reserve components; within the U.S. Defense establishment, considering the complementary roles and missions of the individual services; and throughout the free world, where we take into account our total combined Defense resources as well as those of our friends and allies. We might attempt to expand this even further to include industrial capacities, political systems, or national will. However, in the interest of limiting the concept to reasonably manageable proportions, we will restrict this view of the total force to military resources exclusively.

within the Air Force

To begin at the most fundamental level, let us first discuss the concept as it applies to an individual service. The total strength of the Air Force—and the other services as well—is a composite of its active and reserve elements. In order to achieve an appropriate balance in the strength of this dimension of the total force, it is necessary to perform a concerted planning and programming function for each of these principal elements.

The Air Force has developed policies that are specifically designed to maximize total force capabilities. Among these policies are the comparable structuring of units; equal training and evaluation standards for active and reserve forces; and an integrated approach to equipping, supporting, and exercising all units. The success of the partial reserve mobilizations for the Berlin situation in 1962 and the Pueblo crisis in 1968 demonstrates the effectiveness of these policies in the past decade.

The added Department of Defense (DOD) emphasis of the past year and a half has provided further impetus for improving the readiness, responsiveness, and capabilities of the Air National Guard (ANG) and Air Force Reserve (USAFR). A major modernization program, spanning fiscal years 1971 through 1973, is proceeding toward equipage of the air reserve forces with first-line equipment. Units are converting from obsolete systems, such as the F-84, RF-101, and C-124, to the same aircraft found in the active inventory: the F/RF-4, F-105, A-37, and C-130. Almost two-thirds of our reserve capability will be re-equipped during this conversion period.

Another beneficial outgrowth of the total force view is the increased attention that has been paid to the structure and functions of the reserve forces. Manpower, in both quantity and skill, has been carefully analyzed to assure that the needs of the major contingency plans will be adequately met. The monthly and annual training activities of individual guardsmen and reservists are under continual review. Through this means, many of the less meaningful training requirements have been reduced or eliminated, allowing for primary concentration on direct combat and combat support missions.

Another result has been a notable increase in guard and reserve participation in active missions. The Reserve Associate program has provided a means for 30 percent of the strategic airlift capability to be operated by the USAFR by integrating active and reserve strategic airlift air and ground crews. All Military Airlift Command C-141 and C-9A units now have a major surge capability because reservists are performing the military airlift mission side by side with their active counterparts. Over half the air defense alert force is provided by the ANG in F-101s, F-102s, and soon in F-106s. Guard aircrews and support personnel also provide full-time aerial refueling support in Europe, and both guard and reserve tactical airlift crews are operating on a daily basis in support of the active force. Each of the commands that gain mobilized air reserve forces units has provided a greatly expanded role to these resources in their periodic exercises. These and similar efforts have resulted from a total force orientation and are instrumental in developing a total USAF capability designed to meet threats to national security at any level.

An aspect that is applicable to both active and reserve forces is the increased attention being given to the creative application of weapon systems. Development of multiple capabilities for the F-4 is an example. It not only is an excellent attack weapon system but also performs very well in the counterair and nuclear weapon delivery roles. This versatility assures total utilization of these critical resources.

But these accomplishments are not being made without problems. Unit conversions to newer aircraft are causing temporary reductions in combat effectiveness as well as significant training and logistics problems. These problems were anticipated, and special management procedures have helped to reduce the deleterious impact of major conversions taking place simultaneously. In force structuring, we also face the risk of leaning too heavily toward the reserve forces if the sole driving motivation is economy. The most advantageous force mix cannot be based on operating costs alone, despite the exceptional capabilities of the guard and reserve units. Finally, the transition to an all-volunteer Army is expected to have an adverse impact on recruiting for all reserve forces, an impact difficult to assess thus far. Without the pressure of the draft, many young men may be less inclined to enlist in the ANG or USAFR. However, recent favorable legislation and improving recruitment efforts are among the factors that are causing an increasingly positive outlook in this problem area.

In spite of these and other problems, the USAF is becoming collectively more potent and capable as a result of a total force orientation. Contingency planning is being accomplished from a total force viewpoint. The operational commands are vitally concerned with support for and operational readiness of the reserve components. In sum, the Air Force has expanded its resource base through concurrent consideration for planning and programming its total assets.

within the Defense establishment

In the Department of Defense, which is second in our three-dimensional view of the total force concept, the military services are complementary in nature while each performs its own functions. By tradition, the medium in which each service primarily operates—land, sea, and air—has been used to distinguish each as part of a total military force. In recent years, however, the division of functions has also extended across service lines as a means of tailoring forces to meet the spectrum of threats to national security. We now have, for example, strategic offensive and defensive forces, general purpose forces, and other support forces, elements of which are present within each of the services.

In addition to these views of the service functions, the total force concept now adds two other aspects to this perspective: (1) the ability of one service to apply its resources to participate in the primary missions of another service, and (2) expanded application of individual-service weapon systems. For example, a land-based attack fighter is considered the principal weapon system for interdiction and close air support of ground forces. However, the same system, when viewed as an element of the total force, has equal application against the surface naval threat. Consequently, the composition of the Defense establishment is in the process of orientation to take greater cognizance of the flexibility and multiple capabilities of service resources.

The Air Force is taking extensive steps to broaden the conceptual application of its weapon systems and then to validate these concepts. The B-52D system has recently completed a second expansion of its capabilities. The aircraft was originally designed for precision delivery of strategic nuclear weapons. In the mid-sixties, it was modified for use in Southeast Asia to drop large tonnages of conventional bombs. As a result of recent minor modifications, the same aircraft can now be employed for aerial delivery of sea mines as a means of closing off access to enemy harbors. This capability is particularly directed against submarine bases, thus expanding the U.S. antisubmarine warfare (ASW) capability. With each successive addition to the bomber’s flexibility, the B-52D has continued to retain its former capabilities, thereby giving an added option to the national command authorities.

The diversified employment of the C-130 is another example of this aspect of total force operations. Originally designed as a medium tactical transport aircraft, it has been very effectively employed in close support and interdiction roles as a gunship, the AC-130. Its predecessors, the AC-47 and AC-1l9, also demonstrate the potential flexibility of weapon systems when they are creatively applied to conflict situations. Through these and similar exploitations of the inherent flexibility of weapon systems, each service can achieve a greater level of defense without a significant increase in investment of Defense resources.

There are also examples of actual and planned activities which the Air Force is undertaking to assist other services in meeting their primary mission responsibilities. Increased attention is being given to the potential of land-based tactical air in protecting the sea lines of communication approaching and surrounding Europe. Reconnaissance forces are identifying and tracking Soviet naval surface forces in the Mediterranean. An extensive testing of tactical air munitions against surface naval targets is being conducted, and related delivery tactics are under development. By exploiting the expanded capabilities of land-based tactical air, the Navy can be permitted to concentrate more resources on ASW. In addition, a further expansion of B-52D capabilities is under consideration. An analysis is in progress to determine its compatibility with a Navy air-to-surface missile currently under development, the Harpoon. If employed in concert, these systems have the potential to expand U.S. capabilities broadly for convoy escort and long-range interdiction of surface naval forces.

The Joint Chiefs of Staff are particularly affected by this dimension of the total force concept. In their role of planning for and managing the employment of U.S. military forces, they are taking major steps to assure total use of U.S. military resources. The application of the total force concept at the JCS level is bringing into reality the full potential of the total U.S. military capability, an approach which should achieve a more substantial return on our limited investment of Defense funds.

within the free world

The Nixon Doctrine is the basis of our current foreign policy, and it would appear that its tenets will remain so for many years to come. At the risk of oversimplifying it, we may view that doctrine as establishing a combination of willingness to negotiate with an objective of mutual strength in partnership with our allies. This is intended as the foundation upon which we will build a generation of peace; and in its broadest application, then, the total force concept becomes the cornerstone of that foundation.

A unique view of our military responsibilities to the free world is embodied in this concept. The maturing political and economic stability of our NATO allies now affords a “fair share” investment in our common defense. Although we cannot expect the same equality of sharing from less developed allies, it is unreasonable to assume a disproportionate expenditure of U.S. manpower resources when these nations are externally threatened. Therefore, we expect sovereign nations, as a minimum, to invest their own manpower in their national security. We expect these nations to develop the technological capability of their military resources to the maximum extent possible. Where their technical resources are limited, as in the development of air power, we will be prepared to supplement the capabilities of a beleaguered nation whose survival is vital to our security interests. We consider each of the nations of the free world to have a share in preserving that freedom and a concomitant responsibility to aid a threatened ally as its resources and its own security interests permit. Beyond the fulfillment of these obligations of partnership, we stand ready to be the deciding influence in deterring any disruption to the generation of peace.

These expectations of the total force concept are expressed in more pragmatic terms than a simple statement of desires. Our military aid and assistance programs are principally oriented toward strengthening the complementary capabilities of the nations of the free world. In military sales endeavors, we are offering hardware that is effective, yet simple to operate and within the budgetary limits of the smaller nations. The International Fighter (F-5 E) is an excellent example of a system which provides for free world standardization of munitions, tactics, and ground support at a price that most countries can afford to pay. We are also accomplishing our force structuring and objectives planning with a much broader consideration of the total force capabilities of our friends and allies.

Our military alliance structure and international relations are beginning to adjust to the influences of the total force concept. NATO planning and programming will increasingly reflect the influence of this cooperative approach to security. On an even broader basis, the furtherance of the precepts embodied in this concept requires Department of State and other government agency participation and cooperation as well. As a gradual process, the total force concept should engender a more coordinated and cohesive free world defense force.

The defense of the free world in general and our nation in particular must first be assured if we are to live in circumstances that will permit the solution of social and other domestic problems. Yet the cost of defense can be prohibitive unless we take full advantage of the total military resources available. For this reason, the total force concept is now applied in planning, programming, manning, equipping, and employing our military establishment. For maximum effectiveness, these activities should be regarded at three separate but related levels. Simply stated, the total force concept is applicable at the intraservice, interservice, and international levels. Although various aspects of this concept have been operative over a long period of time, the full dimensions of its potential are just now beginning to be refined. In his fiscal year 1973 Annual Defense Department Report, Secretary Laird captured the trends of future security endeavors when he stated:

The conceptual thrust of the total force is toward the efficient integration of all relevant free world resources to provide more security for all of us. [It] demands a new order of coordination and cooperation. . . .

By virtue of the inherent adaptability and flexibility of air power, the Air Force has the opportunity to seize the initiative and set the standards for this new order.

Hq United States Air Force


Lieutenant Colonel Richard J. Toner (USNA; M.S., Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute) is a member of the Directorate of Doctrine, Concepts and Objectives, DCS/Plans and Operations, Hq USAF. He recently served as Plans Officer, Bare Base Equipment System Program Office, Wright-Patterson AFB, Ohio, and formerly commanded a RED HORSE detachment at Bien Hoa AB, Republic of Vietnam. He was graduated from Squadron Officer School and later served on its faculty.


The conclusions and opinions expressed in this document are those of the author cultivated in the freedom of expression, academic environment of Air University. They do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Government, Department of Defense, the United States Air Force or the Air University.

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