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Posted on Nov 1, 2006 in Front Page Features, Tactics101

Tactics 101: 009. The Reserve

By Rick Baillergeon and John Sutherland

The great secret of battle is to have a reserve. I always had one.
Duke of Wellington

The reserve is a club, prepared, organized, reserved, carefully maintained with a view to carrying out the one act of battle from which a result is expected – the decisive attack.
Ferdinand Foch

A few years ago, we were sitting in a classroom taking a Division level operations concept brief from a student. After the briefing, we had a few questions (as we always did) for the briefer. The first question was, “Did you forget to talk to us about your reserve?” The student confidently answered, “Oh, I do not think one is necessary for this operation.” After looking at each other, we then asked, “What analysis led you to that conclusion?” The student answered a little less confidently, “Well, first I think this is a very simple mission and a reserve should not be required. Second, when we allocated combat power to execute the operation, we did not have anything left to form a reserve.”


After that answer, we knew we had the perfect occasion to begin an excellent learning opportunity. After a session that involved discussions on flexibility, attrition warfare, combat multipliers, exploiting success, and the ability of a commander to influence a battle and assorted other subjects, we saw his head nod. The student left that day understanding the importance of the reserve to mission success.

Unfortunately, there are many others who subscribe to the same mindset that a reserve is a waste of combat power. In this article, we all discuss what is a reserve is, what a reserve provides a commander, the decision to employ a reserve, considerations for planning, preparation and execution, and finally, provide a scenario utilizing a reserve. Our hope is that by the end of this article, we can get some other heads nodding as well.


Doctrine provides a good starting point for our discussion. It defines a reserve as, “That portion of a force withheld from action or uncommitted to a specific course of action, so as to be available for commitment at the decisive moment. Its primary purpose is to retain flexibility through offensive action.” Among the key words in this definition are uncommitted, available, decisive, and flexibility. We will emphasize each of these later in the article.


The reserve is the commander’s tool. He uses it to directly influence the battle. In 1941, Stalin wasted his reserves giving them impossible tasks against insurmountable odds. Thus, they had little impact until the weather stalled the Germans. In 1944, Hitler sat on his reserves and missed his opportunity to push the invasion forces back into the sea. In contrast, Napoleon consistently saved his reserve to employ at the decisive time and place to seal the victory. The latter is the goal.

A reserve is a tremendous asset that often is the critical difference-maker on the battlefield. It provides the commander with the following: First, (most importantly) a reserve enables a commander to reinforce or exploit success. It should be a force that is available so that if a window of opportunity presents itself, the commander can take advantage of it. Many times the window is open, but a commander does not possess an uncommitted force to utilize. The good commander not only can sense this window (truly the art of command), but has the resources to exploit it.

The reserve can provide the commander the ability to prevent failure. A good commander must not only understand the strengths of his plan and forces, but also the weaknesses it has. The commander must determine where the enemy can exploit these weaknesses and consequently, cause his plan to fail. In order to prevent failure or delay culmination, the commander needs to have available an uncommitted resource. This resource can then be utilized to change the momentum on the battlefield.

Finally, the reserve provides the commander the capability to influence the battle. This force is the commander’s to see fit where he wants to use it. Every good commander desires the ability to put his mark on the battle at the decisive moment (if required). If a commander does not have a reserve he has lost that opportunity. Consequently, he may well have to depend on one of his subordinate’s decisions. Determining the time and location of the commitment is normally one of the three to four decisions a commander will make during a fight. As history has reflected, it has been his most important decision countless times.

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