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A Strong Army Reserve Requires Senior Representation

Despite great ambitions for the Army Reserve in the Integrated Review, the UK is far behind its allies and is marginalising senior reservists.

The narrative for the Army Reserve emerging from the Integrated Review states that it will play ‘a vital and pivotal role … We require a more capable, more ready and more usable Army Reserve, which is assured to deliver against mandated tasks across the UK or overseas. Every part of the Army Reserve will have a clear warfighting role and stand ready to fight as part of the Whole Force in time of war. Over the coming years the Army Reserve will increasingly take responsibility for Homeland Protect and Resilience operations, supported by the regular component’.

In principle, this makes excellent sense; at the peak, reserves made up one fifth of British forces in Iraq and one eighth in Afghanistan, and, more recently, they have shone in the COVID emergency and dealing with cyber threats. The narrative is grounded in the Future Reserves 30 study.

Indeed, reserves form a larger proportion of the forces in the UK’s Five Eyes sister countries – including half of all US land forces – but the practical difference is that the US, Canada and Australia have a better understanding of how to organise reserve forces than the UK does. In each of them, the voice of volunteer reservists – people who have combined a career in civilian life with one in the military – is stronger.

The US has many senior reservists, including a two-star National Guard commander in every state. In Australia, the senior reservist commander is a major general commanding a division. Australia’s most famous wartime divisional commander, Leslie Morehead of the 9th Division and Tobruk fame, was a teacher.

At its best, a reserve unit offers lower readiness capability at 20–25% of the cost of equivalent regular units and access to skills not available in the regulars. Reserves can also offer a bridge to civilian communities and the nation, at a time when regular forces are concentrating on a few super-garrisons. Many Territorial units shone in both world wars, with figures like Bill Slim, David Stirling and Shimi Lovat emerging from reserve backgrounds – indeed, Stirling saw the centrality of civilian thinking as pivotal in the birth of the SAS.

Central to devising the reshaping of the citizen force must be senior representation by part-time reservists themselves

Yet this heritage was largely abandoned. The earlier Future Reserves 20 report found that there had been a failure to resource and understand the reserves throughout the 1990s, which was compounded by their use exclusively as augmentees in the final stages of Operation Herrick in Afghanistan. As a result, the then Territorial Army had suffered a collapse in the number of junior commanders. This has had to be painstakingly rebuilt.

Visiting US National Guard units in Afghanistan – and in the US itself – it was impossible not to be struck by how much better designed their supporting structures and processes are than those in the UK, where ‘integration’ too often means trying to cram people with civilian jobs into a regular mould. The muddled processes involved in mobilising comparatively small numbers for Operation Rescript, identified by the RFCA External Scrutiny Team, were rooted in a lack of reserve experience in key branches, including the Land Operations Centre.

The current reserves recruiting programme has not produced the surge the Army Reserve needed after the inevitable outflow of people during the near paralysis of the coronavirus pandemic. It appears to have operated last year without consultation with reserve units or the RFCA, with their regional and local contacts.

More widely, rebuilding credible reserves involves a policy and skillset from outside regular training and thinking. This includes a much greater focus on marketing – not just for recruiting but to maximise routine attendance and build local presence.

It also involves understanding how to apply what the Australians call the reserve pattern of employment to training: how to get the best out of people with busy day jobs – rather than simply defaulting to sending them on regular courses, matching civilian working hours at distant establishments, as some British corps still do. After all, reservists are required to have higher educational attainment than regulars precisely to allow accelerated learning.

Central to devising the reshaping of the citizen force must be senior representation by part-time reservists themselves, people who understand all the differences in dealing with people whose main job is not the Army. Yet today, with 30% of the planned establishment of the total Army, the Army Reserve has just two major generals who have combined a civilian job with a military one. There is a third reservist major general currently occupying a competed, tri-service post. This contrasts with 65 regular general officers.

Regular commanders must understand that the worst way to integrate two very different components is to try to pretend they are the same

Unbelievably, instead of plans to develop senior reserve presence in critical areas, there is a proposal circulating to eliminate one of the two posts currently occupied by reservists: Deputy Commander Field Army (DCFA). This will leave no two-star reservist voice in the Field Army’s command group – the body which will organise most of the reserves restructuring. Such a move would send a dreadful message to reserve commanding officers: that the Regular Army – despite all the evidence to the contrary – thinks it knows all about reserves and will crack on regardless. It flies in the face of the clear statements of intent from the secretary of state on the importance of reserve forces.

Similarly, the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst controls all the University Officers’ Training Corps (OTCs), who are tasked with the early training for most reserve officers. Yet the key one-star post of Deputy Commandant (Reserves) disappeared three years ago, and the critical role of the remaining reserve colonel in co-ordinating the OTCs has just been marginalised by the creation of a new regular post. The reserve voice is being frozen out of another pivotal area for the health and regeneration of the Army Reserve.

There is a wider point here. Sir Richard Haldane’s vision was of OTCs as evangelising movements for the military in the upper echelons of civilian society, and agents for the growth of a reserve officer corps. Today they risk becoming little more than recruiting organisations for regular officers and another example of the forces’ wider retreat from the civilian world.

Many in the Army Reserve welcome the confidence expressed in the reserve component, and the increased clarity of purpose and focus should be encouraging and exciting. But regular commanders must understand that the worst way to integrate two very different components is to try to pretend they are the same. The best reserve leaders are usually those who have the most demanding civilian jobs. Regular decision processes must adjust to take account of this.

The Army Reserve is being asked to do a great deal more. It needs the structures and processes to achieve that, and senior reservists – including DCFA – need to be at the heart of designing and implementing them.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

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