Mark Lancaster is the Member of Parliament for Milton Keynes North, and a member of the Territorial Army.
In recent days concerns have been aired over Government plans to rebalance the Army by cutting the Regular Army from 100,000 to 82,000 whilst increasing the number of Reserves to 30,000 and in particular whether members of the Territorial Army have sufficient training to be deployed in the way the Government envisages.
So is the Territorial Army up to the job? Before we assess that we should look at how exactly the Government envisages our armed forces being deployed in the future, beyond the direct defence of the realm.
Its recently published, but little read, ‘Building Stability Overseas Strategy’ points to a significant different future use for our Armed Forces than the troop-heavy conflicts of the past such as Afghanistan and Iraq. The strategy is founded on three mutually supporting pillars: Early Warning, Rapid Crisis Prevention and Response, and Investing in Upstream Prevention. The most significant change of direction is the focus on Upstream Prevention, effectively a desire to tackle the underlying drivers of instability before a crisis occurs – avoiding the enormous human costs of conflict.
This means identifying how and when to intervene with the greatest chance of success. It is of course also a financial decision, recognising that for every pound spent ‘upstream’ in a fragile state preventing it descending into war and the subsequent human tragedy that follows, four pounds can be saved from the cost of intervening after the event clearing it up. A well thought through and impressive document, the only area where it appears intellectually light is to what role the Military can play in that intervention.
Recent events in Libya will have provoked head scratching at the MOD. Unlike Kosovo, Bosnia, Iraq or Afghanistan it was the first to be resolved without significant boots on the ground. So what role can the Army play? There is mention in the strategy document of ‘defence diplomacy’ and contributing to ‘international peace keeping missions’ but little else.
In order to fill in the gaps and quell the uncertainty, I believe that the government could look at doing several things. First, build on the recent Strategic Security and Defence Review’s (SDSR) recognition that if conflict is going to be different in the future, then our Military needs to be different – and that Reservists are well suited to our approach of upstream intervention and stabilisation.
After all, who has the very diverse skill set which is vital to rebuilding fragile nations – the regular infantry soldier trained in the use of a bayonet or the member of the Territorial Army soldier who happens to be an agricultural engineer or local government officer in his or her civilian life? Of course, our first duty is to defend our nation and prepare for the unexpected, which is why the Regular Army will remain at 82,000. But the future of our overseas interventions looks to be very different, more deliberate and planned, which is why we need the flexibility of the Reserves.
Second, in order for the TA and Reserves to play a greater role, we need to review their terms and conditions of service. The average volunteer by their very nature is well motivated and quite capable with appropriate training of serving alongside their regular colleague, training that can be delivered to meet deliberate operations. However, their contract with the State remains little more than a ‘gentlemen’s agreement’ to attend training. Only a fundamental review of the contract or ‘terms of service’ between the reservist and the State can address this, probably with a degree of compulsion to train and a compulsion to leave should training standards not be met.
Third, we need to look at the approaches of the government departments. In the age of the comprehensive approach, where rather like three strands of a rope the Foreign Office, Ministry of Defence and Department for International Development pull together producing a much greater overall effect, their approaches still remain remarkably different. The Ministry of Defence remains focussed on structure, if only the structure is fit for purpose then troops and combat power can be supplied. The Foreign Office and DfID though appear demand driven, not so much ‘this is what we’ve got so make it work’, but ‘this is the problem so what do we need?’. The cross departmental Stabilisation Unit has begun to tie the departments together but suspicions remain and the Reserves, with their skills and flexibility, can also help bridge the gap between the departments' differing approaches.
If we are to build a Military for the 21st century – in which upstream prevention and stabilisation will feature more prominently – we need to address each of these points. We have a history of planning for wars in the past, not the ones in the future, perhaps for the first time the recent SDSR reversed this trend but embracing the role of the Reserves, with the many skills they do bring and can bring to complement the Regular Army, is essential to achieving this aim.