Wednesday, 14 November 2012

Future Reserves 2020

So the Secretary of State for Defence - Philip Hammond, MP - has been in the news of late talking about the future of the Territorial Army. The BBC has a fairly good run down of his latest statements. If you've any interest in the UK armed forces (which I suspect you do, being as you're here), then you'll know that the UK is planning to double the number of territorial forces available and spend around £1.8 billion on new equipment to bring them closer in line with their regular counter parts. There are also plans afoot to make more use of these forces to support the regulars in larger numbers and on a more regular basis.

There has since been a plethora of articles on the subject. For a good run down of some of the proposed plans you can check out the pdf format of the governments consultation paper called "Future Reserves 2020: Delivering the Nation's Security Together". Optionally, if you don't wish to read the whole thing, you can find chunks of it liberally copied and pasted verbatim (and claimed as own, original work) on certain defence blogs (cough *ukarmedforcescommentary*).

Next year the government is due to produce a white paper on this subject and so today I'm going to throw a few thoughts into the arena. That's why - in case you were wondering - I've changed the background image to that of TA medic Private Robert Willis, on deployment in Afghanistan. The original photo can be found on the army website here.

The Territorial Army itself, or at least the concept of "part time" forces, dates way, way back to the earliest days of man fighting man. For centuries this was the general norm. Kings, Queens and Emperors often retained a core of specially trained individuals often to serve as bodyguards, while relying on the general populace to provide the bulk of the force.

Often these forces were divided by social standings, so richer individuals often born of noble (or at the very least wealthy) families would serve as cavalry because they were the only ones who could afford to keep horses and train on them. This of course also correlates with an age where often soldiers had to provide their own weapons and armour.

Gradually as you descended the social and economic strata the quality of arms and protection reduced, which by extension affected the place that different citizens took in the battle line. However as time passed, warfare became increasingly more complex and in many countries alternative solutions had to be found.

The Roman Empire provides perhaps the most famous example of this. Weighed under the burden of constant expansion, war, and then the need to defend captured territories with garrisons, the Romans adapted to meet the demands of the then modern style of warfare.

The result was the famous reforms of Gaius Marius in 107 BC. Previously the criteria for entering the Roman army had been quite strict and centred around money and land ownership. In desperate need of recruits to face new enemies, Marius opened service in the Roman army to anyone who would answer the call, promising pensions and land for those who served for a full 16 years (read; survived for 16 years).

It was the birth of the professional army, recruited to serve 365 days a year, trained for nothing but battle, and ready at the drop of a hat to march off to face the enemy. No longer would local men have to be rallied to the flag with their equipment at short notice and spend a period training together before being deployed.

That theory didn't quite last the test of time.

Throughout the following decades and centuries Romes fortunes waxed and waned, before finally crumbling. As time passed, seldom would such a professional force see the field of battle again. In Europe most nations fell back on the traditional notion of citizen armies. The cost of keeping a large standing army was too much for the meagre treasuries of old to bear.

The medieval era saw the rise of knights and retainers as part of the feudal system. Noble lords accepted grants of land from their Kings, which they could then turn a profit on (and pay some tax), in exchange for providing armed service to said King. The poor who took to working these lands were also liable to be called up for military service, albeit in roles that didn't require the possession of expensive arms and armour (billmen for example, or archers).

In England this largely persisted until the civil war. Prior to this some efforts had been made at forming militias (trained bands), but their usefulness on the battlefield was somewhat questionable, especially without proper investment in equipment and training.

During the civil war men were called to the flags of both sides and calls went out to raise the militia's (indeed the first attempts to raise militia's, or at the very least secure their arms, proved to be the acts that finally started the war). In many cases armies took detours as they moved in order to stop and pick up new recruits, and spent extensive amounts of time in the winter months raising new forces from the civilian populace.

The trouble with these militias, as with many civilian militias in the past, was their reluctance to travel far from their own homes as part of a "field" army, especially during certain times of the year (usuallu correlating with harvests). This was quite understandable given the nature of the civil war, that routinely saw various areas of the country threatened by smaller, regional armies, in addition to the field armies.

Both sides acutely felt this problem. On the Royalist side, the Cornish Infantry were rightly recognised as some of the finest in the country. However the war in the south west often brought their home county under peril of being invaded, thus they were disinclined to leave it for any extended period of time.

On the Parliamentary side the London "Trained Bands" were equally seen as quite effective soldiers, but like their Cornish counter parts were reluctant to venture too far afield, not least because London was seen as a prime target for the Royalist forces, being the financial, political and population centre of the Parliamentary cause.

The Parliamentary response came in 1645 with the formation of the New Model Army. In addition to providing a degree of autonomy to fight the war without political interference, a key part of which came from the "Self Denying Ordinance" that banned members of parliament from serving in command positions of the new army (with a few exceptions like Oliver Cromwell), it also provided for a permanent army, with a unified structure of command, pay, equipment, drill and discipline, as well as the understanding that soldiers in it were liable for service anywhere that was required.

It was, in effect, the Roman army of civil war England. And like the Roman army, it didn't last. By 1660 and the Restoration of the crown under Charles II, the New Model Army was gone, with the exception of the Coldstream Guards (formed from George Monck's regiment of foot) and the Royal Horse Guards (formed from the post-civil war "Regiment of Cuirassiers"). 

Over time, and with the creation of the United Kingdom in 1707, the militia resumed a key role in defending home territories. While the regular army, reborn under William III (William of Orange) was deployed abroad, the militia provided for defence of the UK against foreign threats such as France.

It survived for many years in broadly the same format, which is not unfamiliar to the modern territorials. They were given proper uniforms and weapons in line with the regular army, and paid a retaining fee in exchange for around a months worth of training per year, including an annual two week muster for training.

Members of the militia were, however, exclusively for use at home and could not be sent abroad. They could volunteer to join the regular army, and in doing so would be paid a bounty, but for most it was simply a second source of income.

They were joined in the home defence role in the late 1700's by the Yeomanry; cavalry drawn from the upper classes and certain upper middle classes. Yeomanry, like their militia counter parts, were exempt from foreign service unless they volunteered. They were also used in some areas to form a sort of quasi-police force for the suppression of civil disobedience.

With the Militia forming the infantry (and in some cases artillery) and the Yeomanry forming the cavalry, you'd think Britain was more than adequately protected at home. But there's nothing a bureaucracy likes more than producing things in triplicate, hence in 1859 the Volunteer Rifle Corps was formed.

The VRC was split along county lines and subject to control by the various Lord-Lieutenants of those counties. Like the militia and yeomanry they were designed for defence of the UK, but could only be called up in the event of an immediate threat of invasion.

Unlike the militia they had to pay for their own weapons and uniforms. The weapons were standardised and held centrally, but the uniforms they could keep and indeed they were permitted to chose their own styling, within reason and subject to approval. Eventually artillery and even cavalry units were raised to serve in the volunteer force.

Then finally, in 1907, the then Secretary of State for War Richard Haldane was able to pass the Territorial and Reserves Act (1907). With this act the militias were formed into the "special reserve" which essentially just became domestic training units which then provided individual reinforcments to the regular army, while the Yeomen and volunteer forces were at last amalgamated into a single, coherent force to support the regular army; the Territorial Force.

During the First World War the Territorials were asked (as they intially still could not be compelled) to take up service abroad. Many units of Territorials were sent to overseas garrisons, which in turn freed up regular service units to be deployed in France. Over time the Territorials ended up being compelled to deploy to France, and in ever greater numbers, and before long their casualties were being replaced by a mixture of territorial, regular and conscripted men.

Following the "Great War" the Territorial Force was largely disbanded, as the regular army had grown to a significant size, only to find itself reformed in the 1920's as the Territorial Army, although in a much smaller size, with less support and reduced retention payments.

Understandably the spectre of war in Europe in the late 1930's saw a new increase for the Territorial army, which then became heavily involved in the ensuing second world war, with over twenty divisions being involved in action in some form or another.

After the war, like the rest of the army, the TA suffered significant reductions. Despite being activated for the Korean War and later Suez Crisis, the TA continued a steady decline as time wore on. A limiting factor in their deployment, despite many UK campaigns being fought in places like Malaysia, Borneo, Aden, Oman, the Falkland Islands and Iraq, was the requirement to call out the entire TA if needed. Units could not be drawn piecemeal to serve abroad as they can now.

This was changed in 1996 with the passing of the Reserve Forces Act (1996), which made individual members of the reserve forces liable to be "called out" for up to 12 months service, with no geographic boundary on where they could be deployed. This led to over six thousand TA personnel being called up for Operation Telic; the British codename for the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

Since then TA personnel have also found themselves being routinely called up for service in Afghanistan. When reserve personnel of the other services are factored in, it's often stated that as many 1,000 of the approximately 10,000 British personnel deployed to Afghanistan on Operation Herrick are from the reserves.

And this is where we find ourselves today. Except that the current government has plans to increase TA numbers for the first time since the late 1930's. It's believed the final TA figure will exceed 30,000 on paper, though naturally actual numbers often fall a little shy of paper targets for a variety of reasons.

The name is also set for a change, switching from the Territorial Army to the Army Reserve in order to better reflect the worldwide deployment nature of the TA. To help alleviate concerns from employers, it's believed that small businesses will be offered certain incentives.

Further, reserve forces in all arms will be raised as whole units, instead of just individuals syphoned off to bolster numbers in regular units, and will spend as much as an additional 13 days a year in training.

With the commitment to spend more money on training and equipping the reserves, in addition to the increase in strength, it would appear the government is taking the future use of the reserves seriously. And it is.

But let's be clear about this, there's only one reason for that; money.

Question; what's cheaper than a regular army of 112,000 men and women? Answer; a regular force of 82,000 and a reserve of 30,000.

Simple put, reserves cost the government less money to retain than regular forces. Throughout the year they maintain a level of competence sufficient to keep themselves in shape such that with advanced notice they can be called up and undergo a period of pre-deployment training before going on operations.

It really is that simple.

We've seen this phenomenon in many other sectors over the years. The Police have taken on a huge numbers of Police Community Support Officers since their introduction in 2002, which peaked at over 16,000.

In the US, since about the mid 1980's, a number of towns and small communities saw their fire services removed, and finding the new provision by distance services inadequate, turned to private fire fighting companies. These companies often only keep a small core of full time fire fighters to reduce cost, bolstering their numbers with a large proportion of cheaper, retained (part time) fire fighters.

Even the retail sector here in the UK is increasingly turning to part time workers. Two part time workers on contiguous four hour shifts can provide eight hours of continuous coverage without having to provide any paid or unpaid breaks. In addition, they can be called in to work over time as needed without having to change their contracted hours, which then limits the amount of redundancy money that companies have to pay when they let these staff go (at the risk of workers refusing over time).

So I for one am incredibly sceptical about this new and improved version of the TA. I wonder why the government doesn't provide stronger protections, enforceable with the full weight of the law, to protect TA soldiers in their civilian jobs, such as preventing employers from enquiring as to whether they are a member of the TA, in the same way that prospective employees are under no obligation to reveal membership of a union.

Then we have the issue of training hours. Currently members of the TA are liable for a minimum of 27 days training per year, including up to two weeks contiguously. Much of this training is carried out in 'one weekend a month' sections, which lends itself to the term "weekend warriors". Expectations are that this will rise to 40 days a year to qualify for the bounty.

But with the rise of the 24 hour business and more unconventional modern lifestyles, such as single parent families that often have to schedule around certain custody arrangements, is it time to adopt a more flexible approach to reserve time?

Perhaps courses/events could be laid on not just at the weekends but for shorter periods during the week, such as evenings, even down to offering spots on short regular forces exercises (such as a trip to the firing range) to TA members in order to help them better balance the increasingly fragmented demands of their civilian lives along with the need to accrue a certain number of hours in order to qualify for their bounty payments?

I also wonder just how big of a "formed unit" the government plans on deploying? A lot of signs point towards even battalion sized elements, but I suspect a better idea would probably be to put sections or platoons (if sufficient numbers can be raised) into existing regular formations, perhaps with regular NCO's to command them (and with regular NCO's assigned to train them during peace time).

Finally, I worry about how the reserves are being used. Without interviewing a significant sample of TA members it's impossible to ascertain to any serious degree just why it is that people chose to sign up for the TA instead of the regular army.

As far as can be speculated, I would presume TA members fall into one of three categories; 1) those who wish to serve in the armed forces without being tied down by the day to day administration of the forces, 2) those who have advanced to a certain level in their professional lives and wish to contribute to the armed forces without sacrificing their civilian professional gains and 3) those who wish to "play their part" and support the armed forces when in dire need, without necessarily expecting the armed forces to rely on them.

If the majority of those who join the TA do so for reasons 1 and 2 then the current system would seem to be ideal. It allows them to continue their professional and personal civilian lives without the 24/7/365 commitment that is required of the regular forces, while still being able to contribute to the overall forces and deploy when needed on operations.

If the majority join for reason 3 above, then we have a problem. Using the TA as a cheap manpower source for enduring commitments and future overseas ventures would appear to break the spirit of the reserve forces, those that have volunteered to be called up only in times of truly dire national need (such as a Falklands take 2 scenario), not for elective, long duration campaigns.

Only those who have opted to serve in the reserves can themselves answer that question. From the contact I have with some reservists, reasons 1 and 2 seem to predominate, but such a small sample has to be treated for what it is; a small sample of individuals who take a keen interest in defence.

In summary then, I'm not sure if this new reserve act answers as many questions as it poses new ones? One of the speculated ideas is that reserves will form reconnaissance units in the new "adaptive" brigades that will likely bare the brunt of duties on future enduring campaigns. Are solely reserves really the best forces to be used for such a specialist, highly demanding task?

Similarly, in general military equipment is getting more and more advanced. New vehicles are coming into service with increasingly sophisticated systems such as networked maps and computerised navigation and visual devices. Communications systems like the armies Bowman system are also becoming more complex to operate and maintain. Will reserves, even with their extended number of training days, be able to keep up with the demands of all this equipment?

And this £1.8bn of extra cash that's being offered up. When spread over 35,000 men and women (all services) in one year, that equates to a bit over £5,000 per head. When the costs of paying for the additional training days, plus proposed extra incentives for employers are taken into account, how much of that will actually be left for better equipment and training?

Further, what guarantees do we have that this isn't just the government trying to do defence on the cheap, something that every government since the end of the second world war has attempted in one form or another? How do we know the government wont simply talk the talk now, then let funding for the reserves slowly slip behind inflation as the years pass by post-Afghanistan?

I personally remain yet to be convinced. What about you?

Oh, and thanks to a gentleman with an unnatural obsession for ISO containers and army bridging equipment, I now have a Twitter account. You can follow me on Twitter @defencwithac. There's also buttons somewhere down below to share this page to Facebook and all that.

I mean, I can't even get a re-tweet from the guy that roped me into this whole twitter thing ;)


  1. Some interesting questions Chris, unfortunately I don't have the answers but I agree with your concerns. I do believe that many feel the TA a way of maintaining numbers while reducing costs but has a true cost analysis been done? Also you simply can not expect the TA forces to be of the same quality as regular forces so they are not a direct substitute.

    As for twitter, I'm not a member so will not be following you, as i have no interest in those type of sites but will continue to follow your blog, ;).

  2. Also what happened to the Euro-fighter background I liked that?

  3. I think TA have earned themselves a good reputation by all accounts. The pre-deployment training appears to be key to this, as it brings the TA chaps up to the approximate standard of their regular peers.

    And the background picture of Eurofighter was actually SAAB Gripens! Here's the link;

  4. Chris - the TA has always had "recce" u its in the form of the Yeomanry regiments. Back in cold war days they were equipped with Fox scout cars, when these were disposed of they moved to Land Rover WMIK, and from what I understand they are getting more modern / younger LR Wolf's and may get Jackal's post Afghanistan - so I don't really understand your comment above.

  5. I think Jackals is the plan.

    I didn't dispute that the TA has had recce units in the past. That's perhaps why you didn't understand the comment, because you misread it?

    But having recce units and them being of the quality required are two different things. Tasks of that nature are a lot more complex and demanding. Fitting reserves into formed units of regulars is one thing.

    However if the government is expecting fully formed TA units to shoulder a large burden in a more specialised area, in the stead of regular forces, then that should ring alarm bells.

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