[Note: This story was originally published March 9, 2009]

Reservists could begin competing with active-duty sailors for active-duty billets within the next two years if personnel officials succeed in creating what they hope will be a close new alignment between the active and reserve sides of the Navy.

If changes go as planned, a reservist could log into the current detailing system and apply - just as active sailors do - for an open position. If picked by the detailer and the command, he would move back to the active side, possibly sign a multiple-year agreement to take the orders, and report for duty.

It would all take place in a Navy without the traditional barriers to moving freely between the active and reserve sides of the service, leading to a major change in how sailors spend their Navy careers.

Chief of Naval Personnel Vice Adm. Mark Ferguson hopes the first step could take place later this year, when officials want to be able to move a sailor from active to reserve status - and back again - in as little as 72 hours per transfer.

The vision is to make the move routine and not need a wartime mobilization authority or require a sailor to visit an active or reserve recruiter, which is how it’s done today.

Instead, a sailor would change his status with a mouse click, and his pay, personnel and medical records would automatically follow. This, officials say, could lead to active sailors heading to the reserve with the promise they can return, and allow reserve sailors to compete for active-duty billets.

“I need to be able to bring reserves on quickly and, in the flexible environment of the future, to be able to allow actives to move into the reserve for periods of time and come back,” Ferguson said.

Personnel officials are calling the idea “sailor for life,” a phrase inherited from former Chief of Navy Reserve Vice Adm. John Cotton. The Navy would track sailors from day they enlist through retirement, all the while providing options for them to serve on active duty or in different states of readiness in the reserve.

A flexible force

The more easily people can switch from the active to the reserve component and back, the longer they’ll want to stay in the Navy, said Chief of Navy Reserve Vice Adm. Dirk Debbink.

“Life has a way of coming at you in unexpected ways,” he said.

“You’re locked in; you’re a sailor for life when all of a sudden your mother takes ill. There’s a car accident that affects you in some way. You have a fantastic opportunity that affects you, somebody comes and says, ‘Would you like to go to M.I.T. and get your master’s degree?’ and as sad as it is, you say, ‘I need to leave this Navy I love so dearly.’ With the Navy Reserve, you don’t need to say that.”

It won’t just give individual sailors more flexibility with their choices. If the Navy can get its simpler transitions to work, active-duty commanders will gain a new “surge capability,” Ferguson said, enabling them to call more quickly upon experience and talent in the reserve force.

One example could be what Ferguson called a Navy “cyber force” of reserve computer specialists who could be activated quickly to help with tomorrow’s Internet conflicts.

The faster active-to-reserve switch also bypasses Navy Recruiting Command, which can take weeks to issue orders to a naval operational support center, Debbink said. The new process will give people more time to get acquainted with their new assignments and new shipmates.

Other goals include having active and reserve sailors draw a single Navy paycheck, rather than a check from a separate reserve bureaucracy, and enabling sailors to keep their Navy enlisted classifications, rather than having to reapply for them as reservists because those details did not transfer between databases.

Debbink and Ferguson acknowledged that several barriers remain before Big Navy will be able to treat active and reserve sailors interchangeably.

For example, the Navy and Navy Reserve calculate retirement points differently, Ferguson said, so the Navy needs to determine how it will equitably count time spent on duty by active and reserve sailors.