Few will have missed the coverage this week of the plans to change the British Army into a new force by 2020. From the start of the week where the Daily Telegraph produced an article, best described as pure fantasy, on the resignation of generals, through to the leak of private correspondence between a Regimental Colonel and the Chief of the General Staff, this has not been a good week for the media, or those entrusted with keeping private correspondence private.
The announcement in the Commons, by the Secretary of State has set out the detailed plans for the future structure of the Army, and given more depth to the role of the Reserve Forces. The genesis of this work was the 2010 SDSR which set out plans to reduce the Army to around 95,000. Further work, once it was clear that the sums in the SDSR didn’t add up, revised this figure downwards again, to a total of 82,000 regular personnel. This announcement was the means by which the new structure of the Army was put out to the world.
In summary, the Army will comprise two very distinct elements, the so-called ‘Reaction Force’ and the ‘Adaptable Force’. The Reaction Force will comprise what appears to be a slimmed down Armoured Division, built around three brigades, and augmented by 16 Air Assault Brigade (and effectively 3 Commando Brigade) plus supporting units to provide the short notice rapid response capability. The Adaptable Force is built around those units which are held at longer readiness to move, and which will provide the routine garrison, training and roulement duties. Within this structure some units will be held at different levels of readiness depending on how the security situation looks. Essential to this plan is the use of some 30,000 trained Army Reserve personnel to augment both forces, through a bolstered set of employment rules. The force structure will be implemented over the next 4-5 years, as the drawdown from HERRICK continues.
|Some feel the Army Plans are going off the Rails (Copyright MOD)|
The reaction has led to what can best be described as an outbreak of hysteria in the media. The usual suspects have been wheeled out to claim that the UK no longer has an army, only a self-defence force, or that we are no longer capable of defending ourselves. Society as we know it is threatened, as we will be at risk of invasion by an enemy so powerful that no one seems to be able to define exactly who it is yet. At the same time, the local pressure groups (otherwise known as the Cap Badge Mafia) are generating angry letters that ‘their regiment’ is for the chop. Citing hundreds of years of loyal service to the Crown, (and conveniently ignoring the reality that almost all Regiments today are bastard amalgamations of many other regiments over hundreds of years), they make the case that our national security is threatened too by the loss of a cap badge.
Lets consider for a moment some of the more hysterical accusations and put them in their place. Firstly, the Army is losing about 18,000 personnel or under 20% of its strength. This hurts, but no more than the RN or the RAF, both of whom have lost similar proportions of personnel over the last 10 years or so. Additionally, in 1990 the Army lost nearly 40,000 soldiers as part of Options for Change, and strangely enough civilisation didn’t come to an end.
So, let’s think positively for a moment. Even after these cuts, there will still be sufficient combat power held in the UK to enable us to deploy either a one off commitment of three Brigades plus supporting elements of about 30,000 troops to fight a high intensity war for 6 months, or to sustain a Brigade indefinitely on operations. How many nations in the world are capable of doing this – sending 8-10,000 troops 4-6000 miles from home, and ensuring they stay for the duration. At a push the US, possibly France, maybe China (although this would be a push) and possibly Germany, if they really tried. So lets be clear – these cuts do not alter the fact that the UK will remain one of only a handful of countries in the world able to deploy effective combat power at distance and outside of their local neighbourhood. The reality is that we’re not going to be fighting alone on the sort of high intensity operation. Can anyone seriously imagine the UK being the sole participant in a war involving putting an Armoured division on the ground? What the UK will retain is an impressive ability to put meaningful power on the ground at the highest level of war fighting.
|The Main Battle Tank - The ultimate measure of high end warfighting (Copyright MOD)|
That said, there are real challenges that will need to be overcome in order to make this a success. From the outset real leadership is going to be needed to avoid the accusation and emergence of a ‘two-tier army’. It seems clear from looking at the wiring diagrams that large swathes of the Infantry and supporting units is going to be working under what was previously seen as the Regional Forces. Assuming that the Arms Plot has not been reintroduced, and that battalions will remain locked into their roles, it is going to take a lot of effort to convince people to join a unit which is posted to the ‘Adaptable Forces’. Who is going to want to join the part of the Army that is unlikely to deploy anywhere exciting, or where deployment is likely to be peace keeping, and not high intensity warfare? It will be a real blow to the morale of many soldiers if they perceive that their soldiering careers are in future going to be spent on Salisbury plain practising feeding Orphans or watching fake militias simulate slaughtering innocent civilians whilst they have to stand and watch in accordance with their UN ROE. Meanwhile their peers in the Reaction Forces will be charging around playing with the best equipment, newest kit, and better deployment prospects.
The Army manning cell at Glasgow is going to have to come up with a very good way of ensuring that those who join for a career regularly cross between the two forces. There already exists a sense of ‘them and us’ between the Regional Forces and the rest of the Army. One feels that this will only get worse over time, particularly if deployments go to units such as the Paras or Guards, which enjoy better publicity in the eye of politicians.
The danger is that the best posts get earmarked for the high flyers, and that over time the Officer Corps will emerge with the best and brightest occupying all the promotion jobs, while everyone else is left to stay in the Adaptable Forces. This could lead to a real challenge as good officers walk early, not leaving sufficient leadership across the Army as a whole.
One interesting development is the re-emergence of the emphasis that the military should play a greater role in homeland resilience. This is deeply ironic as the MOD has spent many years trying to extract itself from this area, and instead focus on getting local authorities to do more. It’s now likely that much of the good work done since the Civil Contingencies Act 2004 to force local authorities to take more responsibility will be undone, as councils seeking to make cuts amend their Disaster Management plans to read ‘call the Army’.
Part Time Role, Full Time Commitment
As a reservist, Humphrey has completed an op tour. While it was incredibly satisfying to do, and it remains a highlight of time in the Reserve Forces, it also set his career back by a year. The author would think long and hard before willingly volunteering to mobilise again, as the wider damage to career prospects is just too great. The challenge future TA members will have is going through this once every five years. Bluntly, the Army seems to believe that employers are going to willingly recruit people and then happily see them spend 20% of their working time every five years working for someone else.
It’s hard to describe the difficulty having mobilised employees causes small firms. While most people are keen to support the military, and have no objection in principle to supporting an employee ‘doing their bit’ on a one off basis, this goodwill quickly evaporates. It is likely that smaller firms will become far more reluctant to employ someone who is a reservist – why take a chance of putting someone with potentially business critical skills into a post when you know they will probably disappear soon. This is particularly the case for people with niche skills, where they may be a single point of failure for a company, and may be hard to replace with temporary labour.
One can see that unless legislation is brought into specifically prevent employers discriminating against reservists when hiring, that many small-medium firms will actively try to avoid recruiting from reservists in future.
Thus, recruitment into the reserve will become increasingly difficult to achieve. While there will always be a pool of younger people, perhaps just out of university, or looking for extra cash, it is hard to see them staying for the long haul. Already retention is extremely poor, and tied into the so-called ‘holy trinity’ – work, partner, family. The moment a reserve member feels that the pressure from any of those three is more hassle than their value gained from belonging to the reserve, then they will usually leave. It is hard to see someone willingly staying into a full Army career, knowing they will be doing a similar number of op tours to regular Army peers, without the same level of equipment or support or pay, and also ‘career fouling’ themselves with their regular employer at the same time.
Army 2020 is going to rely on Reservists for over a quarter of its manpower solution. One must hope that the manpower planners are realistic enough to accept that the future Army Reserve will be a high churn organisation, and that there will be far fewer people willing to stay the long haul to fill posts than before. Its not that people don’t like mobilising, but they want to have normal careers too, and these will always take priority over the Reserve.
You get the Army you are prepared to pay for.
You get the Army that you are prepared to pay for, and it could be argued that the British Army has priced itself out of the market. Its not just the expensive cost of even an infantry section salary, but the associated equipment bills to go with it. The lesson from Iraq and Afghanistan has been that there is an unwillingness among politicians to countenance losses, and to do everything possible to reduce loss, even to the extent of fixing military personnel in key locations. To equip an infantry unit with the full range of weapons, armour, protective mobility, support equipment and the like to operate in HERRICK now with minimal risk, costs a fortune. The UK simply cannot afford the cost of equipping the entire army out to the level of OP HERRICK, and the Army structure does appear to be an effort to reduce the need to do so. The key lesson though is the curious problem whereby politicians are increasingly averse to taking casualties, and order ever more expensive protection. Along the way the costs force reductions in the size of the forces, and thus make it more likely that casualties will occur.
|Even today the British Army has more horses than helicopters (Copyright MOD)|
All’s Fair in Love and War
Speaking to acquaintances with non Army backgrounds and they will quietly whisper a sense that the Army is whinging a little bit too loudly at the way they’ve been treated. To some, the Army has not changed its structure in any meaningful sense since the end of the Cold War. The Army today nearly exactly mirrors the anticipated Options for Change structure set out in 1990. Meanwhile the other two services have been cut, cut, and then cut some more to keep the Army safe. Among the authors friends, there is a sense that this is long overdue. In 2004, the RN and the RAF jointly agreed to take far heavier cuts to their structures to enable the Army to succeed in Iraq, and latterly Afghanistan. The RAF in particular has been hammered with capability reductions in the last eight years, and the RN has lost nearly half its surface fleet. The Army has lost little equipment, or units on its ORBAT, but some may think it could be argued to have failed to achieve meaningful success in Iraq and Afghanistan. Despite the incredible bravery of individuals in theatre, and the heavy price paid in terms of human life, there is a sense that the Army could have achieved more.
Tough questions have been asked by some of the authors friends about why an Army of 100,000 has failed to sustain more than about 6500 troops on HERRICK without hitting breaking point. There is a view that for all the talk about how overworked it was, the Army has been operating with far more organisational fat in its system than the RN or RAF have. Right now, this would seem to be the time that the Army has to step up, lose the admin overheads and focus resources on what really matters, which is delivery of combat power to achieve effect, and not to staff endless papers in a mid level HQ iaw JSP101.
So, it will be an interesting few years as the Army seeks to adjust to a brave new world and a brave new force structure. In the eyes of this author at least, it wont be as bad as it is made out to be, but it will still be very painful. Perhaps it is best summed up by a comment from last night, when as the author was leaving the pub, he bumped into an old friend from HM Treasury, out for drinks with the office. He asked ‘was the Treasury out to celebrate scrapping 20% of the Army, or commiserating at not getting rid of the remaining 80%”…