Friday, 1 November 2013

I Reserve the right to disagree (and make up appalling titles for blog posts)

There's been a lot of talk recently about Army 2020, the reserves, the perils of letting Capita run anything more complex than a church fete, and whether the UK will meet its recruitment targets going forward. Sir Humphrey over at the Thin Pinstriped Line has recently written a piece about this very topic, offering a more positive and "glass half full" take on the current situation, which you can read by following this link.

I on the other hand, am about to do the opposite. In many regards I think the theory of making greater use of the reserves is a good idea, and considering the government has no real appetite for defence spending, reserves could end up playing a vital role in the future. But I'm not really convinced the reality is going to match the concept. This is why.

The context of all this starts with the cut backs in defence spending triggered by the 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review, which was really just a fancy way of saying "we're in the poo financially and this government is going to take the rather lazy and politically neutral option of simply cutting back everything in government by a little bit, and here's the snazzy spin about how we've been waiting for an opportunity like this for years to mould the army into its perfect form for decades, oh joy".

One of the solutions that the government has come up with is to cut back the number of regular soldiers across the army and replace them with an increase in reservists - formerly known as the Territorial Army - which of course has everything to do with increasing capability and flexibility etc, and which has nothing at all to do with saving money. Honest guv.

For clarity's sake, the "Army Reserve" as it's now known is made up of essentially part-time soldiers, who in addition to their civilian employment will also give up a certain number of days per year (the old at least one weekend a month, plus one fortnight a year that you've seen and heard on previous adverts) to train in their military role, for which they are paid, in addition to receiving a sizable bounty payment each year providing they meet a minimum number of days worked and a minimum standard of competence on basic military tests. 

The appeal for the army is that they get an expanded pool of cheap manpower that is maintained to at least a basic standard of capability, which can then be drawn upon during times of conflict. The appeal for the reservist is partly that they get a bit of extra money, but mostly (from the conversations I've had now with a number of reservists) that they get "a lot of the benefits that military service brings, without most of the petty bullshit".

Unfortunately my biggest gripe with the new reserve format is that nobody appears to have considered what the appeal is for employers. And please don't say anything about leadership skills, self-starters etc. I could put an advert in the paper tomorrow for a decent job with a decent salary and get a hundred CVs from other self-starting people with leadership skills, but who also have lots of commercial experience, will be more flexible with weekends, and won't disappear for 6 months to a year anytime the government decides it fancies a crack at a third world country.

Which for me is the real killer in all this. Part of the new appeal that the government is launching is promising reservists the chance to be treated more on a level with their regular peers. That means more money for training and equipment, more opportunities to train abroad, and more opportunities for active deployment. 

It's that D word, "Deployment", that scares employers the most. Saying that you'll give employers the money to find a replacement while their reservist is away is kind of missing the point. I don't want the bloody replacement, I want the person I hired. That's kind of the reason they got the job in the first place because, you know, I feel they might actually be quite good at it. This also has an impact on promotion prospects. If I have two internal candidates for a promotion, both equally qualified, but one is definitely committed to this job while the other is a reservist who is due up for deployment within the next two years, who am I going to give the job to?

It's all very well the government saying that employers should not discriminate against reservists and that we all have to play our part etc, but this is classic government "we're not the ones that have to deal with it" thinking. They don't care, because they know full well they won't have to make such choices and so it doesn't affect them. 

In this economic climate, despite the odd sign of a bit of growth (don't hold your breath waiting for the economy to start booming again soon) businesses are being pushed hard to make every penny count. I don't think the government truly realises that a lot of the growth taking place in private sector companies has come at the expense of being practically Scrooge like with budgets and nursing businesses through all hours to keep them healthy.

To then be told "oh by the way chaps, we've got this brilliant idea of how we're going to do the army on the cheap. Unfortunately it means you lot taking all the crap while we reap all the rewards, but then hey, what else is government for?" is not the sort of news that small and medium sized businesses (who will struggle the most to manage a reservist) want to hear.

And I say that word "manage" a reservist very deliberately. Because that's what will happen with smaller employers. They will have to manage around the reservist and their needs for deployment. This wouldn't be such an issue if the risk of them being called up was much smaller. If, for example, they were only needed for the invasion phase of the last Iraq war (obviously plus the work up and wind down) then you could put that down to bad luck that every now and again they will get the call. On the other hand, knowing for certain that a reservist is due to disappear sometime soon makes them somewhat unattractive from an employment stand point.

On the flip side of the coin, catching a reservist who's just come off deployment isn't half as bad. With the governments new plans to increase tour intervals for reservists out to around five years, hiring a reservist who has just finished a tour becomes much less risky. You're looking at perhaps four years before they are up for deployment again, the chances of them being called up at short notice are reduced, and having now got a tour under their belt there is an increased likelyhood that in future they will pick their civilian career over their military career if push comes to the shove.

The next issue, perhaps more pressing, is the quality of the army as a whole going forward if reserves become a greater part of the make up of the total force.

By all accounts reserve personnel have performed well on operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. The extensive pre-deployment packages have allowed reserve soldiers to be brought up to speed with their personal skills, before being integrated with regular colleagues on a series of exercises that build both the competence of reserve personnel and the confidence that regulars have in them.

That's fine for enduring operations, where the lead time between calling up a reservist and them deploying to theatre is reasonably long, and where the pre-deployment packages can be carefully crafted to make sure all relevant skills are hit upon and that reservists are brought up to the required levels.

The problem is a little more blurry when reservists are summoned for deployment at short notice, such as for the original Operation Telic deployment (second Gulf War - 2003). If the government takes clear action at an early stage and decides to mobilise reservists just in case, then they have a much greater chance of getting access to a comprehensive training package to prepare them.

If, on the other hand, the decision to mobilise reservists is left to the 11th hour then things become more problematic. It means reservists being called up and shipped out without sufficient time to brush up their skills, which may not have been tested properly for many month prior to this. 

Which also raises the elephant in the room, that being the quality of the reserves training in general.

Without being a reserve it's hard to make a judgement about this. There are two sides to the story; that which comes from the reserves and that which comes from the regulars. The reserves would argue that they are more than capable of holding their own alongside their regular counter parts as it is, and that with extra training conducted before an operation there shouldn't be any problems, even with short notice.

The regulars have a decidedly different viewpoint. They take stock of the significantly longer training that they're given at the start, plus that which they do throughout the year, including individual work and multiple extended exercises, then look at the much shorter training given to reservists and naturally wonder if its really possible for one to equate to the other.

There are also the many variable stories about reserve training. Much seems to depend on the quality of the individual units. You'll hear stories about very enthusiastic officers arranging for very comprehensive training packages, and then other units where the level of engagement is... less comprehensive shall we say?

Regulars also often point to the difference in fitness standards that exists and question how a "one rule for one lot, another rule for the others" situation can exist. If there is a certain standard required of your average soldier, then you could argue quite understandably that such a standard should apply broadly to all, not just to those who fall under the purview of the regular army.

The government seems to have acknowledge the existence of such a divide, which is part of the reasoning behind its pledge to invest £1.5 billion over the next few years to bring reserve equipment up to scratch and to give reserves access to the same level of quality training that would be offered to regulars. Whether this money will effectively filter down to where it is needed is anyones guess at this stage.

If the reserves cannot be trained to an adequate level such that short notice call ups are not a problem, then the army could find itself in trouble when it tries to fall back on the reserves to fill gaps, a situation which is problematic for all involved.

The final question worth touching on is the involvement of regulars, particularly regular officers, in the training of reserves. In his post, Sir Humphrey makes the suggestion that working with the reserves could be used as a prerequisite for officers to gain promotions, presumably much like Joint postings are currently seen as key to getting senior positions. He also argues that regulars should focus more on getting the best use out of the reserves, for the benefit of the army as a whole, rather than fighting against them in order to protect their own capbadges.

While I can see some merit in the suggestion of officers being required to do work with the reserves in order to move up the ladder, I can't honestly say that we should expect regular soldiers to take a great interest in helping the reserves get a leg up.

In an ideal world, yes, the regulars would take a great interest in their reserve colleagues, making every effort possible to bring them up to standard and to engage them at every opportunity in line with the governments "one army" mantra. The reality is that human beings are very disinclined to help someone who they suspect is lining up their job.

Imagine you're a regular soldier for a second. All around you're seeing battalions/regiments of regular forces being cut, with everyone nervously looking over their shoulder wondering if they're going to be next. At the same time the government is making a big push to replace regulars with their much cheaper reserve counter parts. Are you going to go out of your way to help the reserves? Aside from those that might be training alongside you for a deployment, are you really going to push the boat out to help bring the reserves up to the desired level?

If you answered 'yes', you probably need your head examining.

In summary, it's a hefty dilemma and frankly I don't envy the people that have to implement this and make it all work. The very notable failures that have been occurring with the application process for reserves, courtesy of Capita (stories abound of month long waits followed by being informed that their details have been lost), are not making the task any easier. How many potential reservists have been lost because of administrative dysfunction? If the scale of the problem is truly as bad it currently appears on first viewing, then someone needs to move in quick and get a grip of the situation before irreparable harm is done to the reputation of reserve recruitment.

Should we be worried in the long run? As the reserve:regular ratio on deployments seems to grow over time then there is some cause for concern. The government has taken a gamble that the extra funding and a big recruitment campaign can make the difference. It better had, as the government is now committed to this course. 

For better or worse, regardless of the details, many people/countries believe the British army has come out of Iraq and Afghanistan having suffered serious reputation damage. The next few years present the chance for the army to reset itself and to prepare for its next big challenge. What it does not need is yet more problems and embarrassment.

Will the new Army Reserve system work? Simply put; it has to.


  1. Chris
    If I can say a well written piece. To back up your comments regarding employers, having seen the thought processes of business owners they
    1. Don't want the hassle of losing people on a regular basis.
    2. Replacing someone for example as maternity cover presents a problem in either the person does such a good job their better than the person you've had go off, or they are a lot worse. Both cause problems.
    3. As you rightly say, although not direct discrimination it is in the back of a managers mind when promoting somebody "who is committed to this job ?" even if subconsciously.
    As usual the Government has dumped this on employees and the Army. Then said "oh dear it's not working but it's not our fault". What should have happened is front line Infantry Soldiers etc should not have been cut, but the logistics train and other "support" services. As most of these involve some form of Trade or Learning/professional qualifications the Army could have said to employers "Allow you staff to be reservists and we'll do your training for free" a lot better proposition than “let us teach them how to use a gun/riffle/grenade/artillery piece and you work out how the leadership skills will help".
    As for fitness levels. Having seen what "regular" troops do, it's just the day to day physical activity that gives you the generally higher level of fitness. Most jobs now are sedentary and however much somebody goes to the Gym or goes for a run unless your prepared to spend 3hrs an evening every evening doing this (and some do) then you cannot be as fit. Just ask somebody who's played professional sport then dropped down to amateur level difference is profound.
    As usual fingers crossed and it'll be the bloody army that takes the flak when the next ill judged (we expect not to fire a single bullet in Afghanistan and we are sending no helicopters) rather than the politicians who have never seen a uniform (apart from a DJ for a posh lunch) who thought it up.
    Good luck and God's speed and thank God it isn't me relying on this idea.

    1. @ Anon,

      I remember seeing an amateur team play a semi-professional team a few years back. The difference in fitness, speed, strength etc was insane.

  2. Army reserve plan 'could be revised'

    1. Depends how it goes. If the reserve recruiting stays like this then they'll have no choice, though the CDS told the defence select committee recently that he's optimistic things will improve once Capia gets the IT sorted. That's what is being blamed at the minute, that Capita is being forced to use the MoD's IT system and not their own. Which begs the question; if the IT system worked fine for the MoD all this time, then what is Capita doing wrong with it?