Reserve Drills from a Distance: Distributed Operations through Individual Teamwork

Updated: May 31, 2020


Rob Boudreau

Major, U.S. Marine Corps Reserve

LtGen Bellon and SgtMaj Grade brief Marine Forces Reserve personnel on telework policy, released March 26, 2020.


COVID-19-induced lockdowns have pummeled real estate markets, revealing vulnerabilities as office, retail, and other workspaces have emptied.[1] At the same time, the seismic shift to telework as the new norm has demonstrated that employees can be as – if not more – productive at home, as they ever were in the office.[2] Permanent telework, however, is not possible for the armed forces, and especially the reserves. Military leaders must acquire positive control of their personnel, at times, to observe individual training; to inspect unit performance; to ensure that medical and other readiness metrics are up to snuff; and to maintain cohesiveness. In the reserve component, where face-to-face interactions occur all of two days a month, developing and strengthening team dynamics is especially critical.

Unfortunately, the invisible enemy has voted, and reserve units have had to adapt to the “virtual drill” model in recent months. All is not lost, however, as reserve training centers languish. Once again, our leaders at all levels can seize the initiative and develop valuable training, which will better equip the force not just for future restricted-travel conditions, but also for operating more effectively in austere environments. Several points are presented below for consideration in developing training and maintaining readiness.

Concept of Distance Operations

To borrow an overused expression: "We’re building the plane as we’re flying it." As much as it would be nice to imagine that our services have been prepared to engage any enemy, in any clime, in any place, at any time, an impartial observer could fairly assess the response to the COVID-19 lockdowns as . . . challenging. Still, the concept of telework drills has not been entirely new, and they’ve been authorized on a situational (individualized) basis in the past. Now is the time to develop the operating concept for the immediate future, and for FY21. Where to start? Employ triage: begin with the standards, and identify essential tasks; determine what requires personal observation and interaction, and what does not; and then front-load the latter over the upcoming months. Once in-person training is restored, continue to triage the most critical requirements, and get after them.

Individual Teamwork

Executing telework drills does not have to mean operating alone and unafraid. Last drill weekend, this author used no less than five different audio/video platforms for staff meetings, training, and discussion groups. In the Civil Affairs world, consider how much work gets done on digital media. Country studies, PMESII assessments and other training products can be developed just as easily at a distance [3]. The Army and Marine Corps have information management platforms that can be accessed off-site, and creative options can also be employed for individuals to contribute to group projects.

Civil Affairs, of course, markets itself as the coordinator-in-chief. Federal agencies, non-federal entities, international partners – all of their capabilities are fair game to the Civil Affairs go-getters looking to network across the human domain. Here’s a challenge: prove that we can accomplish the mission, amongst ourselves at the unit level, during this crisis time. The trust and experience developed during this period of individual teamwork will reap exponential benefits when teams are engaged downrange. Use this opportunity to replicate operating effectively in disparate locations – away from parent commands, supported units, international partners and other actors in the environment.

Education and Training

Speaking in broad terms, training requirements for the Marine Corps fall into two general categories: first, individual annual training and education requirements, which include the familiar annual fitness tests, shooting ranges, antiterrorism awareness classes, and the like; and second, satisfying unit readiness standards, as set forth in the training and readiness manual. Further complicating the current situation, units have to balance taking care of individuals (making sure everyone has the opportunity to earn a satisfactory year) with ensuring that unit readiness is not marginalized. On top of that, units, and individuals who care about their reserve careers, have to plan around three distinct time horizons: fiscal years; calendar years; and anniversary years. Getting ahead of potential date gaps or conflicts will help to eliminate last-minute attempts to juggle competing obligations.

With the suspension of travel, scheduled two-week annual training (AT) periods – which many units rely on to demonstrate prof