This weekend saw a major recruiting effort in London, as the reserve elements of the Armed Forces came out to try and drum up interest from the public in joining the military on a part time basis. While this was going on, the Telegraph appears to have continued to wage a one paper war against the Government, carrying multiple articles from seemingly ever older, senior and out of touch retired officers to try and push the case for maintaining the Army as it is, and not replace 20,000 regulars with 30,000 reservists.
The issue of the size of the Army Reserve (as the TA is to be known) and the wider reserves is one of the most controversial parts of the 2010 SDSR. Cynics see it as running defence on the cheap, while optimists see it as a means of being able to have an army bigger than we could otherwise afford. There are many challenges in meeting this growth though, and it is something that significant political capital has been invested in – failure by the MOD to recruit will probably be seen by the media as a personal rebuff to the Prime Minister directly. To Humphrey the challenge is achievable – in real terms the TA has to expand by about 10-12,000 personnel or roughly 30%. Some see this as not possible, and ARRSE is full of people complaining that the TA simply cant provide troops of the right level to do the job. If you believe the press, we are getting rid of 20,000 battle ready troops for an uncertain future of any army of 30,000 part time troops.
In reality the debate on numbers misses a key point – growing the TA to 30,000 doesn’t meant that the UK can put 30,000 troops into the field – in the same way as reducing by 20,000 troops doesn’t mean we can put 20,000 less troops in the field. Armies don’t work in this way – one only has to look at the recent announcement by the US Army that it doesn’t have any combat ready brigades right now to realise that numbers alone do not mean capability. The reality is that the future TA will support through targeted mobilisations of troops rather than wholesale mobilisation en mass. A quick glance at the SDSR will show the sort of force levels the UK aspires to deploy in future – if you read this, it gives a clear idea about how many TA troops will be required at one time, which is arguably not that many.
What an enlarged TA does is effectively provide a sufficiently large pool of manpower so that in extremis, it can carry out a sustained period of relatively large mobilisations to support operations in line with planning assumptions. A smaller TA is not incapable of meeting those assumptions, its just going to have to mobilise people more often if the UK finds itself in this sort of situation. Similarly, if you believe the papers, you’d think that 20,000 troops are going today and we will find ourselves defenceless for years to come – in fact again if you read SDSR then you can see that the role of the TA sits nicely with the vision for Force 2020. In other words, as we slowly downsize the Army and increase the TA, the UK should be able to maintain a similar level of output throughout. This sort of rationale explanation doesn’t seem to fit well with those who see Soviet invasions lurking just out of sight...
Can we do it? Yes we can!
There is perhaps deep rooted cynicism in some quarters that the TA can enlarge to the levels required – it is always a challenge to enlarge an organisation quickly without putting enormous pressure on the system. Bringing an additional 12,000 recruits in, plus recruiting enough to maintain existing force structures will be a challenge – but it is achievable. Humphrey is wary of comparisons with the 1980s, when the TA grew to at its peak be nearly 86000 strong. This was at a time when memories of WW2 and national service were fresh, and many peoples fathers had served in the military. When coupled with the reality that being called up was highly unlikely, it was perhaps easier to convince people to sign up for membership of an organisation in their spare time.
Todays recruiting proposition is very different – people signing up today do so in the realistic expectation that they may be called upon to serve overseas, with the attendant risks that this brings. Having done some recruitment on behalf of the reserves, Humphrey has found a lot of people do see the risk of ‘being shot’ as a genuine bar to serving. Its one thing to join on the off-chance of a deeply hypothetical conflict, and another to be expected to be available one year in five to serve overseas. A lot of people will find it difficult to belong to an employer which regularly expects them to put their civilian careers on hold, and instead do and different job. Employers, particularly those in smaller organisations will find it difficult to support membership of the Reserves if it means losing people with key skills. While the counter to such an argument is that the Reservist returns with good skills in leadership or communications, an employer may find it easier and cheaper to send them on an ‘outwards bound’ course once every few years, rather than incur the cost of losing someone for a prolonged period.
So, it is a challenge to convince people to sign up, but it is achievable. In the view of the author, this is best done through proactively showing the benefits of membership – such as good pay (you would be amazed how many people think you are not paid), access to skills, training and qualifications, and the ability to do something very different with your life. Above all it requires regular and active interaction between Reservists and civilians – while regular military personnel do a great job of PR, they cannot easily explain the mindset and different nature of life as a reservist where you have to do two very different jobs. It won’t be a quick task, but it can be done if sufficient time and effort is thrown at it – although people should be wary of investing so much time in recruitment, that retention and follow on training is neglected.
It is also important that the regular Army embraces the TA fully and adopts a ‘whole force’ mentality (the same also applies to the other two services). Based on the sort of discussions on ARRSE, there is a real and worrying lack of understanding between the two forces, with seemingly a minority of regular personnel regarding the TA as weekend warriors unable to support when really required. This is worrying, because until the Army understands its reserve element and throws time, effort, resource and support at them, then it will struggle to get the best from it. The longer damaging leaks go to the Daily Telegraph trying to undermine the campaign, the harder it will be to encourage a shift in this thinking.
Little things like making service in a reserve unit be seen as a career enhancer will help – in the RNR for instance the RN traditionally posts regular staff who are at the very tail end of their careers. While good people, there is no trickle of staff going back into the RN and selling the RNR and the benefits the organisation brings to the Naval Service as a whole. In fact it seems entirely possible for many RN personnel to go their entire careers without meeting or interacting with a member of the RNR. While this is perhaps understandable given that much of what the RNR does is about niche roles in bespoke areas, it does make it hard to get the RN to understand what capabilities it gets out of it. If postings to Reserve units are seen as career enhancing and an essential pre-requisite for promotion, then it is likely that attitudes will shift.
Also, it is important to try and build an understanding of the ‘Reserve Mentality’ – the author has often seen regular personnel complain about people in the reserves (particularly in the TA), and suggest that the irregular attendance doesn’t help. The problem is as much that many Reservists hold down busy and demanding regular jobs, and getting time to go to every training weekend is often tricky (particularly if the family or work expect support). This attitude that because not everyone can make every weekend sometimes translates into a subconscious bias that Reservists are not able to do the job. What is perhaps better is to see the Reserve as a pool of manpower that can fill the breach if required. After all, any mobilisation will usually see a Reservist pulled up to a reasonable level of capability during the OPTAG process, and ensure that they deploy with the same training as their peers.
Personally the author finds it depressing that rather than trying to focus on getting the best possible result for Defence, which is a well equipped Army with both regular and reserve components based on an affordable equipment programme, some individuals seem more focused on upsetting the plan in a short sighted effort to protect a capbadge. Perhaps the most important thing to realise is that there is no Plan B to the enlarging of the Reserves. No matter how you look at it, the cost of having regular personnel is so expensive that if the UK wants to retain a reasonable level of capability it has to move to a much greater emphasis on a mixed force of Regular and Reserve personnel. One senses that the efforts of leaking to the Telegraph owe as much to disgruntled Army officers seeing diminished career opportunities as it is about there being real military concerns over capability. The future Army is going to be smaller precisely because it is so expensive to run – while some are complaining about the loss of 20,000 troops, what they have not done is present a credible alternative which is affordable within the Defence Budget (such conversations seem to rely heavily on the ‘scrap aid, scrap welfare and scrap money on PC rubbish’).
The author has been a reservist for his entire adult life, and he genuinely means it when he says that right now is the most exciting time he can ever remember to be in the Reserves. The application of funds, training and a sense that the Reserve is now integral to UK defence is refreshing. He genuinely believes we can meet the targets set for expansion, and that given time and effort it will be possible.
Expanding the Reserve is going to be a challenge, not matter how you look at it. But, it is achievable – after all we manage to recruit sufficiently well to support an Army of 100,000 year in year out. If through sensible application of time, effort and resource, we can shift some of those regular applicants into the TA then it is entirely realistic to assume that the target will be met. But it will take time, effort and wholehearted support from the Regular Army to make it happen. In the authors very personal opinion, this is not helped by a whispering campaign which undermines these efforts, and where some individuals seem to think it more important to leak classified documents in order to attempt to subvert the democratically elected Governments defence policy than they do in following the direction given to them.