Tuesday, 19 February 2013

Retaining the Reserve - why resignation does not mean the end of the TA as we know it...

Humphrey is travelling again in a location where posting on blogger tends to have non western orientated formatting. This article will be reformatted on his return to the UK.
News today in the media that the Territorial Army (TA) is losing over 1000 personnel per year, at a time when it is supposed to be expanding to meet the Governments remit of having a large reserveforce to meet the Force 2020 structure. This is apparently seen as a disaster for the military,seemingly blows holes in current defence policy.

The reality though seems somewhat more mundane – turnover in the TA (and other reserve forces) has historically been relatively high (some reports placing it as high as 30%). As an organisation, the reserves fall into a very peculiar place when it comes to a recruitment proposition. They are asking someone to join the military, albeit on a part time basis, and be prepared to spend a significant proportion of their spare time working, and then on a regular basis be prepared to deploy on operations, putting their civilian lives on hold with all that that may entail.

When someone joins the regular Armed Forces, they do so in the knowledge that this will provide them with a career, full time employment and a support package which will pay their bills and produce a challenging, but well remunerated way of life.

In the reserve forces, individuals may join for a variety of reasons, which include the chance to be part of the military, to try a new hobby or to simply earn extra cash. Whatever the motivation, the authors personal experience is that there is a high retention rate through basic training as the individuals experience fun new activities for the first time, do something different and enjoy a well designed training programme which is challenging, but delivers a sense of purpose.

The problem is that after achieving the real satisfaction of passing basic training, the issue becomes one not of recruiting, but retaining. As people become more familiar with the reserve way of life, the regular weekends away often prove to be an issue – as the author can personally attest, it takes a lot of moral willpower on a Friday evening to drive to a training location for a weekends working. As time progresses the work will become more routine, and the challenge of learning something new is overtaken by the reality that like any job, some things are actually quite boring. Getting up early on the weekend, then going home tired and cold on Sunday evening ahead of a weeks work is sometimes fun, but often can sap the morale of even the keenest volunteer.

At the same time, external factors begin to play a part – the partner or spouse who was initially keen to see their loved one in uniform, or to see them out of the house, may begin to tire of their regular absences, and put pressure on them to call it a day. Also, as work goes on in the real world, it can often be increasingly difficult to sustain reservist commitment and work at the same time. Many companies do not offer special leave (either paid or unpaid) to Reservists, which means taking two weeks training will often eat into nearly half of someone’s annual leave allowance. Add this to the demands from home, and suddenly its no longer quite as appealing to be a reservist.

Finally, deploying on tour can paradoxically be a reason to no longer want to stay in. Discussions on
the Army Rumour Service (ARRSE) suggest that after a mobilisation, some units see wastage in excess of 50% of those personnel who deployed. This is for many reasons from the obvious – people saw too many difficulties in mobilising for career or family reasons and don’t want to go again, to the less obvious, such as their realising that the deployment was the high point of their time, and that anything after this would be a letdown.

So, the reality is that many reservists see pressures on themselves that regular personnel do not have, and perhaps sometimes struggle to understand. It is not surprising that there is a relatively high turnover of staff in the TA – perhaps the surprise is that it’s as low as it is.

The point that the media seem to have missed is that retention of the TA (and wider reserves) is  well understood, and planned for. Historically no single plan since the cold war has envisaged the entire TA turning out en masse at full manpower for an operation. Even if the Cold War had gone hot, then most publications suggest that up to 25-30% of the manpower may not  have turned up on the day, often for good reasons.

The Army 2020 structure may show a growth of 30,000 in the TA, but this does not mean that 30,000 TA will be ready to deploy immediately on operations, in the same way that there will not be 82,000 regular personnel ready to deploy. Rather it is a planning figure which allows the Army to plan on certain manpower requirements to be available at varying levels of readiness and sustainability and spread across a range of ranks.

The issue is to ensure that sufficient personnel are recruited and retained so that they can deliver in the numbers required. In recent years, the main driver for the TA in some areas has been provision of junior soldiers, such as Privates or Lance Corporals, with a much lower requirement for SNCOs and Officers. Its actually relatively easy to generate junior ranks in the reserves – there is a fairly high influx of recruits, and they will often want to go on tour. If say a unit had a requirement to deploy 50 privates and 10 Sgts, then if after a tour, 30% of the privates quit, then there would still be sufficient manpower for the medium term to generate the Sgts plot of the future.

The reality is that people leave the military at all levels and at different times. There is a much smaller requirement for more senior personnel, so even if people are leaving the TA at a junior rank, then its usually sufficient to ensure that replacements will arrive, and those that are left can take on the more senior roles. The challenge arises when the more experienced people are leaving in such numbers that they cannot be replaced – particularly in specialist areas like medicine or intelligence analysis, where a lot of professional training is required and you cannot just appoint someone in.

So, in reality, although the papers are making out that the military will suffer, in fact this sort of attrition has doubtless been planned for and factored in when making manpower assumptions. People often don’t stay very long in the reserve forces – indeed, a lot of people don’t stay very long in HM Forces full stop. The author has been told that the average length of service in the military is 6-7 years, and a quick look at the very useful DASA stats site shows that there is a high outflow from all three services, even in quiet years without redundancy rounds.

While there are always ways that retention can be improved, it may be worth pondering that if retention was too high, then there would be too many people in the system, with too few opportunities for promotion, and with increasingly little incentive to stay (and thus the retention cycle begins afresh!). The reality is that a turnover of personnel, to bring more junior people in at the bottom is an essential part of recruiting a military force, and to help ensure that the right number of people are available at the right time for promotion.

There are many challenges for the Reserves ahead, particularly as they transition into an employment model which will see far greater calls on their time, and this will require the willingness of both reservists and their employers to be a success. However, just because people are leaving the organisation as anticipated does not mean that the entire structure of Army 2020 is doomed!


  1. "When someone joins the regular Armed Forces...this will provide them with a ...well remunerated way of life."

    The inexorable diminution in terms and conditions of service renders that assertion problematic, at best. People are recruited and retained for various reasons, but remuneration is increasingly not one of them.

    "The point that the media seem to have missed is that retention of the TA (and wider reserves) is well understood, and planned for..."

    This is not the case. The reserves aspect of Army 2020 was built on foundations not even of sand, but of air. Most Army personnel in MOD Main Building and Army HQ do not have faith in Army 2020, and they are simply 'going through motions' so that they get their salary each month. Indeed, TA officers speaking in open forum at the Joint Services Command and Staff College to Lieutenant General Nick Carter, author of Army 2020, were openly critical.

    "...although the papers are making out that the military will suffer, in fact this sort of attrition has doubtless been planned for and factored in when making manpower assumptions... a turnover of personnel, to bring more junior people in at the bottom is an essential part of recruiting a military force..."

    Assertions that these factors have 'doubtless been planned for and factored in', respectfully, discredits the usually excellent analysis on this blog. You're clearly SCS, presumably working at Navy Command or Main Building, and have an excellent insight in to many aspects of the department; I humbly submit that on this occasion you would do well to trust the media - my peer group has found the reports in the past two days far more accurate than the spin promulgated by DG Transformation's team et al.

    On a final note, something you may wish to also consider is the combat/specialist dichotomy: it is exceptionally easy to train infantrymen, and indeed CO 4 PARA only a few years was awarded an OBE for his efforts to run effectively a HERRICK recruiting pipeline that recruited, trained and deployed TA soldiers to feed the regular battalions, and then shifted them off to other TA units on their return. The problem however arises with specialist units - and remember, Army 2020 was designed by senior infantry and cavalry officers determined to protect "their bit of the Army", so specialist units were disproportionately hit - we can not train intelligence analysts, signals engineers, fire support teams, et al, in the severely-constrained time available for a) part-timers, who b) we are unable to retain.

    In summary, there is much that Andover and Main Building are glossing over, and I would urge caution on believing the propaganda. I'm happy to email you to discuss this further - just pop a note under the comments. Please do publish this though - it would be interesting to get a debate going.

  2. There are significant issues with the current drive to increase the size of the TA/Reserves, even before one looks at the rationale and practicality of looking to the Reserves to provide core capability for the Army.

    Firstly the Army has launched a recruiting campaign before it is known what the offer for the Reserves will be (both in terms of the offer for the individual, and the employer), what the commitment is going to look like in detail or even what the basing plan is.

    Secondly the Reserves are not in a good shape. Ten years committed extensively in support of operations in Iraq and Afghanistan have had a damaging effect on the Reserves. The reason for this is that the Reserves have been asked to provide individuals to augment the deployed force, not any sort of collective capability. This in turn has meant that for TA training the emphasis has been on individual training and not collective which has not allowed for any sort of meaningful progression for Officers and SNCOs. This in turn has been exacerbated by the lack of command opportunities for TA NCOs and Officers when deployed. The net result has been a high turnover of soldiers deploying on operations but limited retention. There has been considerable atrophy of TA collective capability. It is telling that a fully qualified TA infantry officer or NCO is not qualified to command troops on operations.
    Until the Army gives clear direction as to what it wants the TA to do and how it is difficult to see how this will be corrected. We are asking people to sign up for something where everyone knows the Terms and Conditions of Service are undergoing a significant re-write. We are asking employers to sign up to support the TA when they do not know what they are being asked to support or the impact it will have on their businesses.

    I am reminded of the US joke: "What is the difference between an Active and a Reserve component soldier?" "The Active component has a job to go to between deployments".

    In short the current drive to increase the size of TA is a classic case of a campaign where the Lines of Development are completely unsynchronised.

  3. @SO2 - Thanks very much for your excellent commment - you've raised a lot of points that warrant further reply here, but I've not got the time to do so at the moment due to travel. Perhaps you could drop me a line via the email so we can chat in more depth offline? Let me know if you need the address.

    @Redrat - thank you for your comment - for some reason it has gone into the spam filter, and hasn't been published. I'm away at the moment and the blogger interface has changed into a new language, so am not able to work out how to 'unspam' it. Once back in the UK I will restore it back onto the site where it should be. Its definitely not been deleted though!



    1. Actually I am probably being thick but what is the email to contact you Sir H?

    2. Its pinstripedline (at) gmail .com

      (spacing to reduce spam!)

  4. Red Rat,

    That certainly seems to be the core of the long-term problem: rather than having a coherent plan and role for the Reserves, the regulars (Army in particular) view them as a football club would view its reserves -- individual assets brought in when the first eleven wear down or are unavailable, rather than a separate category and type of resource with its own identity and purpose. This is quite different (and a long-time hobby horse of mine) from Britain's colonies-of-settlement "kids," especially in N. America and the Antipodes. That may be a structural difference as well, between settler nations and a home country (kingdom) where enfranchisement has moved slowly and often grudgingly over the centuries. But whether it's called a National Guard or a Militia, those reserves have historic elements (the regiment-"ized" Militia battalions of World Wars fame down Anzac way, National Guard regiments with roots in U.S. Civil War volunteer formations, historic Canadian regiments rooted in the CEF of Vimy Ridge And All That and preserved in the reserves, the old Kommando system in S. Africa, etc.) None of that to be found in the UK, but for brief periods either side of the (numbered) World Wars (the militia had a more ragged showing in the world wars vs. Louis XV and Napoleon.) And something that very much needs to change, but not just because FF 2020 says so. Much bigger job than that.

    SO 2 and Sir H,

    I'd love to see that debate. In fact, I'll lay down a bullet-point comment right after this one with the intent of raising issues for comment by SO 2 or like-minded parties who are actually inside the tent. I respect the fact that veering into specifics can be dicey since any random reader might trace the nature of complaint back to the complainer. But in broad terms I wanted to talk about some beans, bullets, and TO&E sorts of issues, knowing that you both will raise the salient points about recruitment, education, and career development/compensation.

  5. Right, those bullet points about some things that look "off" about FF 2020 from a distance:

    - The mess of how logistics roped in from "Force Support" brigades or the Reserves will actually work when both main components of the proposed hi-lo force (a number of other countries have gone hi-lo with their armies, that's not the unusual part) will need a capacity for rapid tempos of deployment and redeployment, each for their own reasons. SO 2 touched on this already but I'd be glad to see three or four meaty standing ribs on the bones. (And again that started already with salient issues like sigint, heavy transport, and fire support.)

    - The apparent use of the whole restructuring program as a jobs program specifically for brigadiers (less so, it seems, 2* and up. Interesting.) I can think of at least three rationalisations of the proposed force structure that would be commonsense improvements: 1) revert back to a MRB-style model of "like" deployable brigades less 16AAB, 2) fewer but stronger 'adaptable' bdes with enough personnel to function on-order in rotation without cobbling bits together, 3) organic CS/CSS for all the fighting bdes rather than holding it in pools-by-specialty. Each of those would, in their way, function more smoothly. Their common thread is that there are fewer working organisations for 1*s to command. The only unifying explanation of why seven (seven?) Potemkin brigades and the force pools is to maximise command opportunities at that level. This is discouraging on many levels but maybe the most philosophical is that it means officer recruitment and retention is still based on "success" (climbing the greasy pole in approved ways) rather than accomplishment (being a bloody good unit commander after appropriate education and experience, and having the satisfaction and practical results of that to keep through service and retirement.)

    - Dipping below a critical mass of heavy fighting power. I've got no brief for vast armoured divisions roaring through Central Europe (or Asia...), but there is still great utility for a mailed fist up front (in urban warfare, among other things, and in the face of failing states who suddenly have an assymetric advantage by parking fleets of clapped-out Sov armour in every garage out of the air force's sight.) Based on developments in military retrenchment round Europe, soon there will be only three nations west of Russia with a substantial core of willingly-deployed (key element) heavy armour: France, Poland, and the UK. (Spain has numbers on paper but just as a hedge against state-v-state with Morocco.) The 3 x 56 plan for C2 would dip below that. Now that Ozzie's most swingeing cuts are being walked back, it seems to me 4 x 56 is at once all that's probably needed but also an absolute baseline for balloon-goes-up insurance. As a sidebar the heavy bdes look an awful lot like stock-valuation insurance for GDLS and CTA, lots of 40mm turrets needed and a needlessly Warrior-like "scout" with a whole regiment of its own.

    - The infantry branch, as SO 2 pointed out, shopping the rest of the service for its own benefit. (The horsey types may have been involved, but it seems to me the RAC/Picadilly Cowboys are only about one amalgamation north of plumb for an Army of 82,000.) Especially so since, on behalf of the other cap-badges, the solution to the infantry's phobia of reductions and their bloody shirt of regimental heritage has a simple solution. Rescind the remains of Childers, get rid of the battalion system in the infantry (at least in the Regulars, Paras possibly excepted for ease of personnel/training management.) Keep historic regimental caps/colours/recruiting areas alive at company level in the amalgams as they do in the RAC and occasionally the RA, battalion-sized regiments as in RAC. Good way to end-run the branch with the pollies and size their component more appropriately for the future.

  6. Sorry for the delayed reply - lots of family stuff going on. The discussion appears to have engaged in some detail here: http://j.mp/Yo8ApU (Army Rumour Service), and rather than duplicate effort, probably best to adjourn there :)

  7. Another factor affecting wastage, based on my own experience on deployment, is the all too frequent disdain that the Regulars show for the TA (sorry, STABs). It is very galling to be given the cast-off kit, get the dirty jobs and night guards, and to be generally treated like a form of primitive animal life by Regulars who are often less educated and sometimes less well trained than their TA counterparts. In my own sub-unit we lost over 50% following our deployment on attachment to the Regulars and the main reason given was because of the way they had been treated. The Army will need a significant change in its internal culture if the MOD has any chance of making its (very poorly through through) plan for the reservists have a chance of success.