02 August 2012
While an increase in the reserves makes "eminent sense", Mark Phillips, head of the Royal United Services Institute's Land Operations and Capabilities programme, tells editor Joel Shenton that some very complex issues still need to be resolved
In the near future, Britain's regular army will be reduced considerably and the number of reserve troops will increase so that by 2020 an 82,000-strong regular army will be backed up by some 30,000 fully trained reservists in both combat and support roles. That is the plan, ordered by government and mapped out by generals, and there are still seven-and-a-half years in which to make the changes required.
With the end state of the reforms now decided, there is still a great deal to change in order to get there. Only the final force balance has been firmly decided, and some observers have warned that the 'how we get there' part still needs a great deal of work.
The move to use reservists to provide specialist combat support functions for the army makes "eminent sense", says Mark Phillips, research fellow at thinktank the Royal United Services Institute, firstly because it provides the army with a channel for recruiting highly specialised skills.
"Because of operational demands the regular army hasn't been able to develop all of these capabilities itself," says Phillips, who earlier this year produced a report on the reserve force balance. "They've not necessarily recruited people into the regular forces who are able to do some of the very technical stuff on the cyber side for instance. And so you can draw on the existing skill sets and educational qualifications from people outside the regular forces through the reserves route."
The problem with encouraging workers in skilled trades into the reserves, Phillips argues, is that companies may well be unwilling to hand staff over, particularly smaller companies for whom the temporary loss of a skilled individual may be difficult to manage.
"Even some of the big companies have said 'this is perhaps asking a bit too much of us'," says Phillips. "The big problem is the army is going to be relying on reservists to such a great extent, why during the Army 2020 work did the army not engage with employers to gauge what they might be willing to support? When we did our study last year, we found that employers are more willing to look at these issues than the MoD thought they might be."
The answer could lie in shared training or employment contracts, something employers are said to be willing to consider. The US Army reserve's Employer Partnership Initiative could serve as a model for this in the UK, Phillips says.
"They've got 1,190 employer partnership groups agreements in place with say the medical community, for doctors and nurses, the truckers association for drivers and companies like Boeing for engineering and McAfee for cyber security specialists. The point is that you're all drawing on the same pool of people. In those areas you're looking for common skills which you'll share between the armed forces and the civilian employer, so can you come to some arrangement whereby you share that training, therefore you give greater certainty to the employer about when individuals will be deployed.
"I don't detect any of this thinking within the army themselves."
"The trouble is they are at the very formative stages of engaging with employers. It's not something the army has a lot of experience in and they're going to have to come up with some pretty innovative ideas which could take a while to materialise."
As well as highly skilled support roles, the government's plans call for reservists to play a greater part in combat operations. Although the army's future 'reaction' force will still be overwhelmingly composed of regular soldiers, the 'adaptable' force – which will feed personnel in to sustained operations – will see the percentage of reservists deployed in combat roles increase as operations progress.
Modelled on Commonwealth and US militaries, the changes are designed to give the UK access to reservists simply by increasing the numbers. The challenge is not just one of recruitment, however, and Phillips says cultural differences may be harder to overcome as the regular army has been "pretty anti- TA (Territorial Army) since the two organisations have existed".
"There are a lot of murmurings at the moment about the state of the reserves, how the army don't have confidence that it has always performed well on recent operations and they don't' have confidence that it will fulfil the functions which army 2020 envisages well," he says.
"That's slightly disingenuous because it is the regular army which has actually divested the TA of funding and capabilities for many years. Nonetheless you've got this cultural gap and perception that the reserve isn't up to the quality it needs to be. This lack of trust could inhibit the proposal to integrate the reserves with the regular army.
"You're going to slightly have to change the risk appetite of the regular army as well, because you're saying to the army we want reservists to provide 'X,Y,Z' form of capabilities rather than just to augment you. That's changing the nature of the relationship so the regular army will in effect become reliant on the reserve. And do they want to accept risks related to readiness and quality etc."
Another issue will be that the TA needs to do more than just get people through the door. Indeed, it is already more than 30,000 strong. Phillips says that some 20,000 of the current reservists are classed as 'trained', while 16,200 of those are 'regular attendees'.
"In a sense at most only about half of the TA are actually trained and deployable at the moment," he says. "Even then there are issues about quality. Now the intention is to actually make the full complement of 30,000 trained and deployable by 2020. To do that you need to improve the training and the capabilities they have access to."
The government's answer to this problem is to commit an extra £1.8bn to extra reserve funding, but that money is not guaranteed, and must be bid on in each successive planning round, Phillips says. It will also be spread across the army, navy and air force reserves, and much of it will need to be spent on marketing and recruitment campaigns.
"There is then very little to actually improve capability with," says Phillips. "There's growing concern within the MoD and the army that there will be no money left to train the TA up to the required standard and provide them with the kit they will need for the roles they are going to be performing."
The third, and perhaps biggest, issue that needs to be overcome, is recruitment and retention. The TA has also under-recruited by around 20 per cent in recent years, he adds, which would leave it short of some 6,000 personnel were the trend allowed to continue. There is also the potential issue of asking reservists for a greater commitment to match their increased prominence.
"Army 2020 will require a much bigger commitment from reservists to operations, even than they give at the moment," says Phillips. "Nobody has done an assessment of whether existing members of the TA want a greater commitment or whether potential recruits might be put off by the fact that in the future they'll have to give up a much greater chunk of their time for operations."
The idea of training reservists alongside regular troops, using the same facilities, has obvious benefits in terms of maximising usage of the existing defence estate. Another potential issue, however, is that closing redundant local facilities in order to do this could break established links between reserve units and their communities, says Phillips.
"[That link] is something which has always been a strength of the reserve and it has often been the only presence in many parts of the country that the army has had. It could also have a knock-on effect on recruitment and retention again because individuals might not be willing to travel further to go to these regular bases where reserve training and facilities will shift to.
"One of the reasons people join the reserve is because it is convenient in the context of their normal civilian life to go down to a local drill hall or local unit. So whether or not the inconvenience of integrating the estate will put people off staying in the TA or joining it I don't think has really been assessed.
"All the detail has to be worked out. Army 2020 is very top level, and has a lot of detail which still needs to be worked out. At the moment there are probably more questions than there are answers."