Thursday, 21 November 2013
Looking a Gift Horse in the Mouth? The Army Reserve debate considered...
Humphrey has been away with work, and watching developments in Defence with interest, albeit from afar. One of the most interesting has been the continued opposition to the restructuring of the Army, and drawing down 20,000 regulars, to replace them with an enlarged Army Reserve. The wider dynamics of the debate are interesting – it seems to Humphrey that there remains a very strong opposition to the Army Reserve playing an enlarged role in national society, and some of the headlines that have been generated on the topic seem to vary from wrong to downright offensive.
Part of the challenge is the way in which the AR continues to be seen in the eyes of many as a grown up cadet force, populated by social misfits like ‘Gareth’ from the office. There is also a dislike of the concept of people conducting soldiering in their spare time, and a sense that the organisation somehow has lower standards than the Regular Army. One only has to spend time over on ARRSE to quickly realise that there is a very large hostility to the very existence of the AR, let alone the roles it plays.
This dislike is puzzling to the author – the AR will eventually represent some 30% of Army manpower, and yet it is still treated by many in the public eye as an organisation worthy of contempt. Reading some of the debates held in Parliament, one is left with the impression that in some peoples views at least, the AR never went to the Balkans, Iraq or Afghanistan, didn’t win many gallantry medals and didn’t lose several score of their members during these campaigns. There instead seems to be a view that soldiering can only be done by full time professionals, and that only a Regular Army of 100,000 personnel can possibly protect the UK today.
It is curious to see former Army (and presumably serving judging by the leaks) Officers express such visceral opposition to the enlargement of the AR. Many of their arguments about its training and equipment were arguably in part caused by the deep reluctance of the Regular Army to fund and support the TA (as was) over many years. One only has to look at the history of the Reserve to see that it has traditionally enjoyed older equipment, less up to date weapons and vehicles and has often been seen as a dumping ground for personnel not wanted in their parent units to instead act as PSI’s. It is depressing that having seen the AR as something not worth much effort or expenditure for years, the same disgruntled elements now seek to turn on the AR members and make out that they are at fault for not meeting the expectations of some in the Regular Army.
The reality is that the UK simply cannot afford an Army of 100,000 regular personnel anymore if it wants to deploy them into the most high level of conflict. The cost of equipping and training a brigade or battlegroup capable of deploying into somewhere like HERRICK and working alongside NATO partners, while using the most modern equipment and weapons, is absolutely astronomical. The author has long held that there have essentially been two British Armies since 2006, the force deployed on HERRICK which was equipped with the most modern equipment and vehicles, and which got all the necessary updates to meet their tasks. Then there was the rest of the Army, denuded of manpower, resources, training opportunities and often kept with less capable equipment and weapons. One only has to look at the way in which all non HERRICK related opportunities and training really dried up between 2006 and 2012 to realise how much of an effect Afghanistan (and the wider financial situation) was having on the Army.
It feels as if some observers believe that the entire Army is kitted out to the standard of the battlegroups we see on HERRICK, whereas in reality even after some 7 years out there, there is arguably only about two brigades worth of the most up to date equipment in the system – those for the deployed force and those for the deploying force. Yet to get to even this standard has cost billions of pounds, primarily through UOR expenditure. To get the remainder of the Army to the same level of equipped standards would cost billions more, which simply don’t exist. OP HERRICK provided a wide range of new vehicles, capabilities and weapons at a time when it wasn’t otherwise likely to have got them. Its essentially re-equipped the deployable proportion of the Army, and done so outside of normal budgets (although bringing this all into core could be expensive). Yet despite being re-equipped, it feels as if people will continue to complain that it will be too small and unfit for purpose in the future – particularly if Reservists make up a large proportion of manpower.
The problem that the Army faces is that its adventures in the Balkans, Iraq and Afghanistan have led to it being associated with long term deployments into unpleasant locations and not achieving an enormous amount. Sure the wars have been won quickly, but there is a difference between being an Army used to win a war, and an Army used for fighting to keep the peace. There is seemingly little popular support for protracted engagements on the ground, particularly when the sole outcome seems to be negative headlines, deaths of troops and a sense that the investment does not necessarily seem to be producing the desired outcome.
The argument against reductions seems to be that we live in an uncertain world and we do not know what the next military problem may be. This is a reasonable argument to make, but in a world where the UK is an island nation, where defence expenditure in our local part of the world is declining and where there is seemingly no direct strategic threat to our existence, it is hard to see what the threat is that would warrant maintenance of a Regular Army of 100,000 personnel. Any deployment or use of that force would almost certainly be during an operation of choice, not necessity, and by definition would be an expeditionary operation. The public have little taste for such operations at present, and as noted, the cost of sustaining such capabilities remains extraordinarily high. Ironically what seems to be missed by most commentators is that the SDSR (and arguably all Defence reviews since 1991) are trying to help fund an Army capable of going overseas to fight the sort of operations that the Army itself wants to be able to do assuming the support existed for them to do it. What the commentators don’t seem to get is that such operations are very expensive and require a lot of specialised equipment and support which limits how many people you can deploy. In other words, based on the budget we have, the Army is being sized to a level which can be afforded.
The role of the AR in this is simple – it will be able to provide a wider pool of manpower to augment on those occasions when operations occur at the higher levels of effort (which historically seem to happen about every 10-20 years) and provide support when required in other areas as part of a total force. Its not about sticking part time Guardsmen on the Mall, but about restructuring so that rather than having 20,000 troops sticking around which the MOD cannot afford to equip to the highest levels or deploy, that those troops are instead available when needed as a reserve component.
There is no likelihood of an ‘Active Edge’ being called which necessitates the mobilisation of the Army in 72 hours anymore. Instead we know that there is likely to be either short term intervention, for which the UK has plenty of extremely capable spearhead forces, or if the operation becomes enduring, then the AR can be called upon to provide additional bodies as required to generate the follow on forces. Given all troops (both regular and AR) undergo the same OPTAG for HERRICK, its reasonable to assume that by the time mobilised troops get to theatre, they will be of a reasonable standard to do the role required of them.
Perhaps the problem is a combination of Regular Army personnel sensing a loss of career opportunities, coupled with an unwillingness to adapt to the new operational environment. In the last 25 years the Army has gone from being a force waiting to fight for the end of the world in Germany, to a force required to deploy on constant operations. There seems to be an unwillingness to accept that the days of constant operations and sustained deployments are drawing to a close. The willingness of politicians and the public to accept the sort of ongoing HERRICK tours is probably at an end. The future is clearly set out in the SDSR – its about small interventions for a short period of time, at levels which can easily be supported by an Army of 82,000 plus the AR. The future Army will be deployed, but on less regular operations and probably for ‘one offs’ and not a grinding series of tours. This does mean a mentality shift, and a refocusing of expectations. The RN and RAF seemed to have accepted this many years ago, and it is notable that for the last few years they have increased their efforts in ‘defence engagement’ and highlighting the value that ships and aircraft can provide in supporting UK interests around the world (just look at the Gulf where the RN and RAF are the focus of pretty much all UK defence engagement in the region). The future for the Army has to be one where it is seen as a critical player, but one that will arguably play second fiddle to airpower and seapower, which offer more flexibility and less likelihood of long term entanglements.
So, perhaps the disquiet over the growth of the AR and the cuts to the Regular Army should be seen as a wider realisation that the ‘good times’ are coming to an end. The Army has been heavily protected from cuts since 1998, in part due to its ongoing commitments in Iraq and Afghanistan, while the RN and RAF have been heavily cut – paying the long term price in force structures in a failed effort to deliver short term operational success. One senses that the mood has changed, and there is a realisation that with the Army extracted from most of its foreign adventures, the time has come for it to share the structural pain. The problem is that one senses some parts of the Army cannot accept that the good times are over, and instead they are pushing back against the inevitable.
Is the Army looking a gift horse in the mouth? Probably – it has been offered a reasonable settlement to bring troops back from Germany and almost double the AR in size. A lot of political capital has been invested in the Army to succeed in this mission, and there is a danger that a misguided effort to sabotage AR recruitment in order to try to protect the Regular Army size, it will actually do more harm than good to the Army itself. There is unlikely to be any political willingness to fund a larger Regular Army when there is no political desire to use it for more than interventionary missions or small scale deployments. Given the current offer sees the Army remaining at roughly the same overall size as before (112,000 regular and Reserve versus 115,000 Regular and Reserve today), it is hard to have much sympathy with those who claim the Army is being hard done by. There is an opportunity to build a genuinely world beating ‘total force’ and the political support to provide funding to make this happen. Rather than seize this opportunity to reform, instead there seems to be a hellbent desire in some quarters (at least if you look to the leaks to the media and attitudes on some websites) to stop this in its tracks in the misguided belief that it will somehow keep the Army the same size as it was before. This could be a very foolish mistake to make indeed.