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The 20-member Board has a civilian chairman and includes a non-voting Military Executive and Senior Enlisted representative, a member or former member of each of the seven reserve components of the armed forces, and ten U.S. citizens with significant knowledge and experience in national security and reserve component matters. Board members represent a wide range of industry, business, professional, and civic experience, in addition to their military expertise, which combined provide the Secretary of Defense with a unique and independent body of senior officials to review and comment on Reserve component programs and policies.
The board is supported by a staff consisting of a Colonel or Navy Captain from each of the six DoD reserve components plus a member of the Coast Guard Reserve. These officers also serve as liaisons between their respective components and the board. The law requires them "to perform their staff and liaison duties under the supervision of the military executive officer of the board in an independent manner reflecting the independent nature of the board."
The board is one of the oldest advisory committees in the Department of Defense. In September 1949, in response to inadequate recruitment and strength in the reserve program of the armed services, Secretary of Defense Louis A. Johnson established a Civilian Components Policy Board. On June 13, 1951, Secretary of Defense George Marshall redesignated the Civilian Components Policy Board as the Reserve Forces Policy Board. In July 1952, Congress passed the Armed Forces Act of 1952. This act established the Reserve Forces Policy Board as "the principal policy advisor to the Secretary of Defense on matters relating to the Reserve components." Passage of the Reserve Officer Personnel Act of 1954 and the Reserve Bill of Rights and Revitalization Act of 1967 underscored the Board's role and expanded its authority, responsibility, and membership. In 1995, a member of the staff of the Joint Chiefs of Staff was added to the Board's membership.
On six occasions from 2002 through 2011, the RFPB issued "Citizen Patriot Awards" to individuals and military units.
In 2008, the Commission on the National Guard and Reserves recommended that the RFPB's governing statute (10 USC 10301) be amended because the board was not structured to obtain and provide directly to the Secretary of Defense a wide range of independent advice on National Guard and Reserve matters due to the nature of its membership and its subordination to other offices within DoD. Other than the chairman, the board’s membership had included only DoD officials and made recommendations through the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Reserve Affairs.
In the National Defense Authorization Act of 2011, Congress significantly revised the operating framework and membership of the RFPB to the present structure. The revised law was effective 1 July 2011. In April 2012, the Board issued its first recommendations under the new structure.