The long awaited paper on the future of the Reserve Forces was announced in Parliament on Wed 3 July. The paper marks the latest in a long chapter in the UK on the best way to employ and make effective use of the Reserve Forces. For as long as the UK has possessed a formed reserve (rather than a militia or local arrangements) there seems to have been unsolved debate about what the Reserve actually existed to do. In two world wars, and during the Cold War, this role seemed clear enough – to provide a body of men who had a reasonable level of military training in their spare time and who would be relied on during the outbreak of war to bring the regular military up to full strength, either through the addition of formed units, or specialist individuals into a wide range of areas.
The end of the Cold War marked the next stage of the wider debate about the utility of the Reserves and whether they could or should be used in roles outside of general war. The Reserve Forces Act 1996 set the scene for the use of the Reserves in a manner outside of this, allowing them to be employed and mobilised for a variety of operations ranging from civil contingencies work in the UK through to deployment on Ops HERRICK and TELIC. This really marked the first point at which the UK saw the evolution of its Reserve Forces from a peacetime force waiting to deploy for the ‘big one’ through to a force able to be utilised in day to day operations.
The paradox has been that throughout this period, despite trying to get a reserve that is more deployable than ever, numbers have been slashed. The TA at its cold war 1980s peak stood at some 80,000 personnel (roughly the planned size of the future British Army), but the SDR in 1998 saw it cut to just 36,000, and today the figure of trained personnel reportedly stands as low as 18,000. So, the starting point for the debate is to identify how to not only get the Reserves to take on a greater role, but also to grow them to a level where they can field over 30,000 trained personnel within a few years.
So, what did today’s announcement really do? For starters it tried to set out how the MOD is going to change the current situation with Reservists and help further integrate them into the military structure in the hopes of creating a so-called ‘one army’ which has both regular and reserve components by 2020. This will mean a raft of changes to how members of the reserve work, are employed and motivated to stay in the service. It also sets out how the MOD will improve support to both families and employers who have Reservists.
In simple terms the paper tries to ‘improve the offer’ made to Reservists in a bid to make them join, remain in the reserve and stay for the long haul. It promises improved equipment, better opportunities for training, access to military pensions and other benefits such as learning credits and so on. There is also a drive to try and equate military training to courses in civilian life, in an effort to let employers understand the value they gain by employing a Reservist. The quid pro quo is that members of the Reserves will now be called on far more regularly than before, with the Army in particular seeking to mobilise units at least once every five years in theory in order to take part in a wide range of operations from peace support to war fighting.
The question is whether the proposed changes are enough to act as a sop for Reservists? On a superficial scan they do seem quite promising. Access to a pension is a nice gesture which sounds impressive, but will probably cost the MOD relatively little. A lot more detail would be needed on payouts and input, and it is worth remembering that someone would need to train for about 15 years to qualify for a single years payment. In real terms over a 20-30 year career in the Reserves (assuming 2-3 mobilisations) at best most people may be in line for a pension worth 2-3 years worth of full time service. In practical terms this is a pittance compared to regular pensions, but is a nice tangible reminder to people who are thinking of leaving about the longer term financial impact.
The worry though is the ominous mention about reviewing the bounty payment, particularly in light of the pension plans. The payment of a tax free bounty is a major retention bonus at present, and were this to be scaled back as a result of pensions, then it could be a significant reason for people to leave.
Similarly, the offer of paid leave sounds interesting, but has no details to back up how it would actually work in practise. The offer of 3 days pay for completing annual training requirements of 24 days (or 5 days for the TA 40 day target) is extremely appealing, but will it come at a cost of reduced bounties? So, Humphrey is cautiously optimistic that the new financial arrangements sound positive, but the devil, as ever, remains in the detail.
Integration or Rejection?
The concept of better integration between the regular and reserve forces is particularly interesting – there remain strong cultural differences between the two forces, despite the use of Reservists on operations. On a strictly personal note, Humphrey finds it amusing when regular personnel have turned up on training weekends, only to claim time off during the week as a result of working during the weekend!
The challenge, particularly for the Army, will be to create a culture of shared understanding about the very different challenges facing regular and reserve members of the armed forces. While there will inevitably be good natured banter, there is also a more serious need to build trust and understand how the two groups approach life in slightly different ways. From personal experience, the author has found that the Regular military sometimes struggle to understand the Reservist mindset, or how it is possible to balance off two very different careers. Reservists sometimes find military courses infuriatingly slow, and feel they are doing two day courses packed into two weeks. If the opportunity exists to put regular troops on reserve training weekends to increase skills and understanding, and if the chance is there to improve reserve access to training courses then this can only be a good thing.
Part of the challenge though will be adapting to different mindsets – for instance Reservists book two weeks leave to undertake training, only to turn up on the course to find it was cancelled, they are RTU’d for some reason or they had their place taken by a regular. Incidents such as this remain depressingly commonplace, and the end result is often a disaffected individual who may find they’ve wasted two weeks leave, cannot get on other training and ends up missing their bounty. Such a result is a waste of talent, a waste of resources and often leads to the loss of a trained person. It is vital that the regular armed forces get much better at ensuring that courses for Reservists run as expected, and do not get cancelled unexpectedly.
A final challenge to note here is the difficulty for the Army in generating opportunities for units and not individual reinforcements. Part of the challenge in HERRICK has been the use of the TA in providing a trickle of individual reinforcements who augmented units rather than deploying formed units in the campaign. What this meant in real terms is plenty of opportunities for junior soldiers, but ever decreasing opportunities in their professional field for seniors and officers – instead outside of specialist areas most deployments occurred as augmentees. So, as the Army changes structure the issue is going to be getting the TA to the point where it has sufficient opportunity and experience to deploy a formed unit and be able to meet all the requirements placed on it. While can be done, one should not underestimate the challenge involved in getting a unit fully worked up for deployment – particularly on the SNCO and Officer cadre. There is likely to be a steep learning curve and whether this is sustainable, particularly for individuals with busy day jobs is open to question. It is going to be very interesting to see how easily the Army finds it to deploy a formed reserve unit onto an operational task and the level of support it will require from the regular force to make this happen.
Integration will be a challenge, and its not something which can happen overnight, but it is something which will take time. As units start to form up on the mobilisation cycles, then this will hopefully see a better shift in attitudes between both organisations towards making a ‘one army’ concept a reality.
Wives & Employers (may they never meet)
The final part of the announcement focused on measures designed to offer support to employers and families of Reservists. This is perhaps the most important area of all – you can offer the best military opportunity going, but if your employer doesn’t want to give you time off, and your wife/husband won’t let you go, then it is all for naught. Humphrey has often heard it said that reserve life comes below the priorities of family and work, and this is probably right – no matter how satisfying it may be, it doesn’t pay the mortgage.
For employers the challenge is convincing the smaller firms of the value of the training on offer, and in persuading them of the case of letting valued employees go for up to a year at a time every five years. This is not an easy situation – big organisations have the HR mechanisms and staff pools in place to be able to provide staff support and cover for the periods when a Reservist is away. By contrast smaller companies may lack the support network, and may be reliant on the Reservist as an SME in his or her field, and without this it may have a critical impact on the willingness to support membership of the Reserve forces.
There is no easy answer to this challenge – ultimately no matter how well supported or incentivised a company is to employ Reservists, it may well often be simply unsustainable for a business to employ people on the understanding that they may be away one year in five (although arguably and if one were feeling controversial a similar argument could be extended to maternity leave). The best that can be hoped for is a broadly supportive employer, who will accept the benefits Reservists bring, but who also are willing to release them when required.
The one possible worry for some was lurking in the text which noted that the top up pay for Reservists to ensure their salaries were matched when mobilised was going to be capped for non specialists. This could be a defining moment – while there have always been some theoretical caps in place, in reality mobilisation for the last decade has seen very junior personnel often being paid more than the Brigade Commander. While there is financial logic in potentially capping salaries, there is a danger that people will be reluctant to mobilise if they felt that it would impact in their ability to pay the mortgage.
The ultimate question is to what extent these reforms will make a difference for the reserves to recruit and generate high quality personnel capable of doing the multitude of tasks expected of Reservists in the future. It is one thing to set the target of growing a force to 30,000, but growing it to the right combination of ranks, skills and specialisations is another. From the authors experience, many people join the Reserves for a few years, enjoy the training and maybe do a deployment and then when the ‘real world’ intervenes, they leave. In many ways this is no different to the regular military where the average return of service seems to be about 8 years. The issue though is trying to sustain enough more experienced figures like NCOs and senior officers – to get there will require them to take on regular deployments and be willing to put their careers on hold every few years. Some will always be willing to do this, but others will not.
From the authors own very personal perspective, mobilising for one deployment was a superb experience and something which at the time was a real personal challenge. But if asked to deploy again, he would need to think long and hard about whether he could do this. It would be career limiting for the regular job, and introduce a level of worry and instability. There is also the question that as civilian and military careers no longer keep pace, whether the opportunity on offer as a Reservist would be sufficiently tempting – why put a civilian career on hold for nearly a year for no real development? So, the reality is that it will prove to be a challenge to get people to stay motivated and stay in for the long haul – regular tours, a likely increase in workload and a lot more training is great for some, but could prove to be simply too much for others as they balance civilian and military careers and family life.
It is very early days, and it is far to soon to judge whether these changes will be a success. They will require a lot of recruiting effort to bring people in to get the force up to strength, and then a sustained recruiting effort to keep it at the strength and this could be very challenging indeed. Indeed in the short term the closure of units and merging of units could have a detrimental effect on manpower as people vote with their feet over the loss of units. Additionally, it will take time for newly established units to get up to speed – for instance while the Intelligence Corps is gaining new units, a formation headquarters does not equal a fully manned and trained unit – this will take a lot longer to achieve.
It will be interesting to see what happens over the next few years as we try to progress. One hopes it is achievable, but its going to need time, patience and money, and two out of three are not necessarily there in large amounts!