Wednesday, 11 April 2012

How Regular Is Your Reserve?

Several newspapers have been carrying stories about some RAF personnel complaining at the prospect of their being made redundant, and being reminded that they have a reserve liability. (Link to the Daily Telegraph article is HERE).

This once again feels like another non story being dragged up by the media to try and bash the MOD around the head and make it look inept and incompetent, but which actually has an interesting truth to it, that is unlikely to be told by the media.

Currently, when people join the regular armed forces, they are reminded on joining that they are not signing up to a period of purely active service. There remains a theoretical obligation on leaving the military to be available for recall as a Regular Reservist. This appears to almost date back to the era of conscription in European armies during the 19th Century, whereby the regular military was relatively small, but could be quickly swelled by conscripts in the event of a general call up – an event best seen in 1914, where the major European powers quickly mobilised millions of men to return to the colours during a national crisis.

The UK, despite having a far less lengthy dalliance with conscription, maintained a similar system, whereby anyone who had served in the military remained theoretically liable to be called up in the event of a major international crisis, although in practise, this was rarely used. The author THINKS (but is not 100% certain) that the last time this system was used in real numbers was probably in the Suez Crisis, where reportedly 20,000 reservists were called up (although it’s not clear how many were ex regular, or ex national service, or TAVR).

The system of a regular reserve made a lot of sense at times when military forces used relatively straightforward and low tech equipment such as a basic rifle or field artillery piece. Once you’ve trained on something once, you can remember the basics of how to strip and shoot it with relatively little refresher training. You may be larger, slower and your uniform may have been attacked by the magical shrinking fairies, but as event after event has shown from the dawn of conscription to arguably the fall of the Third Reich, men called up after 10-15 years can have some utility, even if it is only to fight a defensive war of attrition and inflict further ‘casualty speed bumps’ on an aggressor (even in the more modern day, the so-called Home Service Force was seen as a useful reserve for UK Home Defence).

The UK military during the Cold War maintained a large theoretical reserve – this author remembers reading a book which attributed the 1980s theoretical ‘full effort’ Cold War British Army to be somewhere in the region of 160,000 regular troops, 90,000 TA and in excess of 200,000 regular reservists – in other words, on paper, the British Army could at full stretch field nearly half a million men, even in the late 1980s.

The emphasis though is on ‘theoretically’ as in reality these numbers could never have been reached. The loss of contact details, the inevitable loss of skills, lack of equipment and relevant subject knowledge for anyone who’d been out for more than a few years meant that anyone called up in the event of a general mobilisation would have been far less useful than perhaps supposed, and really would only have been of use as a generic military person of only limited value.

Today the problem is even more marked – the old wartime and cold war munitions and equipment stocks have long since been disposed of. The new budgeting method inflicted on MOD during the early 2000s meant that MOD incurred costs in year for running large dumps and depots of equipment held, and the reality was that there were lots of depots holding equipment that simply would never be used. The author has heard of many tales of kit being found during clear outs that dated back to WW2, or even the WW1 as late as the 1990s. In the US the problem was even worse, during the late 1990s US railroad officials reportedly broke open some rusting carriages in a siding to discover military equipment mobilised for the Spanish American War of 1898 but which got misplaced and then forgotten about!

The other problem is that the UK military has changed out of all recognition in the past 10 years. An infanteer from 2002 would probably need almost as much training and equipment recognition as a new recruit would if they were called up now. The average Infantry Section alone has a completely different kit out, with new weapons, equipment, communications, IED issues and so on. Putting someone who left the Infantry in 2000 into a Fire Team for a mobilisation of 6 months would probably require more effort than simply recruiting a new soldier for a full career.

So, if the requirement to use a Regular Reserve is limited, why is it held on to as an option? In this authors view, the reality is that there is highly unlikely to be an existential threat to the UK that would require massed call ups of troops in the near future of the kind envisaged in the Daily Telegraph article. Volunteer Reserve personnel are being increasingly used, but this is as much a wider reflection of the use of the Volunteer Reserves as a means of providing personnel who treat the armed forces as a second career, and for whom mobilisation is part of their working life. As a reservist, this author has such a view – mobilisation is something which occurs to him as part of normal career life.

Looking at the provision of manpower, it is clear that even when the UK military are operating at what feels like a high operational tempo – and 2012 is a good example of this, with the Olympics, Op HERRICK and wider UK defence operations all on-going, there is still only likely to be a relatively limited call up of Volunteer Reservists. Ultimately this is because the regular forces are adapting, taking pain in other areas, and ensuring that if they have to provide manpower for operations, they conduct their business in a slightly different manner to get the job done for a few months. Its challenging, but not impossible – and this arguably is a statement which covers any reasonably large employer who is trying to tackle the Olympics as an issue at the moment.

There would seem to be next to no need to call up Regular Reservists – what possible role could they be expected to do, given that there will be some capacity in the regulars, and plenty of capacity in the Volunteer Reserve to provide bodies to carry out duties. This author is genuinely struggling to conceive of any credible situation where the MOD would need to bring a mass call up of Regular Reservists into play – its not necessary, and some would arguably say it would be politically exceptionally damaging to the Government.

So why then does the Regular Reserve carry on as a role? Well the reality is that it’s a really useful means of bringing deeply specialised ex regular personnel, who may wish to bring some very niche skills with them, back into service for a limited period to carry out specific jobs. For instance in the original OP TELIC, about 100 Regular Reserve personnel were mobilised, out of a total force of nearly 50,000 personnel. The authors impression (and again, this is purely an impression) is that it is not a case of people randomly getting brown envelopes through their letterbox. The process of mobilisation is designed to be intelligently done – there is usually a discussion between the military and the person being recalled, or mobilised, and people who want to go willingly are usually sought. There are often many ex regulars who would like to go, but for whom they had no prior wish to belong to the TA and the Regular Reserve is an excellent way of getting them back onto the books without causing a major HR admin headache.

So, the best way to look at the Regular Reserve is as a last ditch source of volunteer manpower to be trawled only when the Regulars and the Volunteer Reserve can’t provide anybody. It doesn’t exist to call up recently redundant RAF personnel to go back into uniform and do the Olympics. It doesn’t really exist to put whole Corps level formations into the field, it merely exists as a useful legal tool to help get those who want to serve their country again into a useful post with the least amount of hassle. In other words, this story feels like a lot of concern being raised over no particularly good reason.


  1. I read this. And it really annoyed me. Blatantly obvious to anyone who has served that it was the biggest non story ever.

  2. I believe reservists were called up for the Bosnian intervention - IFOR. There was certainly plenty recently demobbed regulars shumfing their way through ITC Caterick in 1996.

  3. "The other problem is that the UK military has changed out of all recognition in the past 10 years. An infanteer from 2002 would probably need almost as much training and equipment recognition as a new recruit would if they were called up now. The average Infantry Section alone has a completely different kit out, with new weapons, equipment, communications, IED issues and so on..."

    All doubtless true - literally the only bit of infantry kit that's common between TELIC 1 and HERRICK 16 is the ID disc! - but most of the army isn't infanteers. I would imagine that there's a lot less adjustment for someone who's, say, a former lorry driver or quartermaster...

  4. I'd say about 20% of the army is combat troops ie infantry, marines, paras etc. So out of a 100,000 man army, say 20,000 combat troops. In DC's 82000 army that would be about 16000 ct. The olympics are taking up about 17,000 troops. That's quite a lot with Afghanistan ongoing. But the army seems to be coping - just. A matter of concern is the quick turnaround times, with married regular servicemen/women seeing less and less of families. This is where reservists call up might help.

    I'm not too sure this notion of 'the end of mass armies' is a reality. We've had two post-WW2 gens with no major European conflict. But the conditions are changing. Germany is trying to survive economically within Europe, but nationalism and sovereingty/nationalism issues are on the rise. The EU is disintegrating. In 2 gens WWs 1 and 2 will be far from living memory. The causes of those wars haven't disappeared but the memory/understanding of the horrors may.

    I think its foolish to assume no more big conflicts. We were damned fortunate to get through the last one. Disarming and miitary reductions seem to temp fate. Better to be prepared. Anyhow why is it that were losing 20,000 personnel but building TWO aircraft carriers. We haven't even got the aircraft for them. That's madness.

  5. Your talking about the long term reserve. Regular reserve is only for a few years after leaving and they are far more likely to be useful, they have more training and experience of the kit and tactics than volunteer reserves, Regular reservists are just harder to get hold of due to loss of contact details.