John Baron is a member of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee and is MP for Basildon and Billericay
A clear sign that a particular line of argument is in trouble is when its proponents create ‘Aunt Sally’ arguments to justify their cause. The Government is proposing to replace 20,000 regulars with 30,000 reservists. Many of us who oppose this plan argue that the regulars should not be disbanded until we are sure that the reservist plan is both viable and cost-effective. Yet, the defenders of the plan try to claim that we wish for a ‘Victorian age’ Army or, as in Julian Brazier’s recent article on this site, that we doubt the 30,000 target can be met. The fact that such Aunt Sallies’are so wide of the mark is contributing to the fact that the Government is beginning to lose the argument.
No-one disputes that 30,000 reservists are achievable. However, given that TA numbers have been falling in recent years, and that reliable sources confirm fresh reservist recruitment targets are being badly missed, it is only right that Parliament questions whether rising costs bring into play the possibility of false economies. This is before we address the issue of capability gaps resulting from the loss of these regular troops.
There are real concerns that the reservist plans will produce neither the anticipated cost savings nor the capability envisaged. We should remember that this was not the original plan. The previous Secretary of State for Defence confirmed on the Floor of the House in 2011, including during exchanges with the Chairman of the Defence Select Committee, that the regular forces would not be wound down until the reservists were able to take their place. We have still not yet had the answers as to why and when the plan changed.
Indeed, the Commons debate on 17th October revealed the Government had few answers to a series of questions posed by Members from all sides of the political divide. For instance, how much extra will it cost to reverse the trend in falling TA numbers and meet the fresh reservist recruitment targets, which are being badly missed? Furthermore, how much of the £1.8bn that the Government has set aside over the next ten years for the plan has already been spent?
In addition, why is it that the central case for annual deployments contained within the Defence Reform Bill’s Impact Assessment numbers only 3,000 annual deployments, when we are trying to plug the gap left by 20,000 regulars? Silence from the Government does not help its cause.
Further to the issue of rising costs, questions also need answering as to possible capability gaps, in terms of number and training. What research or evidence is there to justify MoD projections that the mobilisation rate will double from its present rate of 40 per cent? There are also concerns whether the quality of training offered to reservists upon deployment will be up to the same standards as that offered to regulars. This is particularly apposite given the encroachment of Human Rights legislation.
Another perennial ‘Aunt Sally’ surrounds the campaign to save 2nd Battalion, The Royal Regiment of Fusiliers (2RRF). The campaign is rooted in hard facts and cold calculations. It is more expensive to retain poorly-recruited battalions which require constant resource to maintain. 2RRF remains the best-recruited unit in the British Army, and as such was not one of the five infantry battalions initially earmarked for disbandment. It was sacrificed on the altar of political calculation. Such a policy reinforces failure.
The more the Government conjures ‘Aunt Sallies’, the more support for its reforms ebbs away. It is noticeable that the political consensus over defence is starting to crumble: many Labour MPs voted for our motion on 17th October. In Defence Questions this week, both Labour and Liberal spokesmen were pressing the Government on its Army reserve plan – few answers were forthcoming, just optimistic predictions. The Government will have to engage with our questioning if it is to bolster support for its proposals: the longer our concerns remain unanswered, the more they grow.