Julian Brazier MP is a member of the Commons Defence Select Committee and a former officer in the TA infantry and then SAS Reserves.
In his article last week, John Baron repeated his assertion that the government plans to replace 20,000 regulars with reservists. As Phillip Hammond has made repeatedly clear, the two are not exchangeable. The pressure on the budget and the needs of the equipment programme has made a reduction in expensive regular manpower unavoidable. The much smaller cash allocation for the expansion in reserves, buys a great deal, at an equivalent cost of just 6-7,000 regulars.
Reserves provide an immediate source of extra capability, a long term framework for expansion, a range of specialist skills, not affordable on a full-time basis, and are the principal link between the Army and the wider public. Every other English-speaking country strikes a balance between regular and reserve troops with a higher proportion of reservists than we plan.
It is encouraging that John has accepted that ‘No-one disputes that 30,000 reservists are achievable.’ The Army’s Recruiting Group has made a hash of reservist recruiting since they took it over from the Reserve Forces and Cadets Associations seven years ago, but this is at last being put right. The last couple of years have been especially frustrating for units as they have seen thousands of applicants fall by the wayside, their enthusiasm destroyed, as factors ranging from unworkable software to the muddle over medicals and delays for security checks prevent them from participating.
The proposition for reserves has been restored: formed unit/sub-unit deployments, better kit, better training – together with some new enhancements including pensions. Once Recruiting Group has been sorted out, and applicants can join again in a straightforward way, we need to get the message out and numbers will turn round.
I do share John’s concerns over the quality of training for reserves. There has been progress on this, but gaps – especially in officer training – remain. The solution is to learn lessons from abroad. The trick is not to try to assimilate young men and women with busy civilian jobs into regular time slots unsuited to their needs. Instead we need to restructure courses for them so that similar ground can be covered in modules over week ends and the occasional concentrated week.
Let me address a couple of other points which John raises. He asks how an assessment of ‘only 3,000 deployments’ can ‘plug the gap left by 20,000 regulars’. He also says that we would need to double the existing mobilisation rate to meet it.
In fact, for the last few years, the Regular Army has only had an average of between 7,000 and 8,000 on operations in Afghanistan, plus relatively small numbers in other theatres, out of a trained strength of around 100,000. This equates to only about 2,000 per 20,000 and yet there have been many complaints of overstretch. Part of the reason for this is that many individual regulars cannot be deployed for reasons wholly unrelated to operations – yet they still have to be fully funded whereas a reservist is only paid if they are training or recovering from injuries incurred on operations/training.
The aim is that reservists should achieve half the availability level of regulars over a five year cycle – as is the case in the USA. As they are less than a quarter of the cost, that represents an excellent deal for the taxpayer. Even more important, by coming from communities around the UK to serve, they maintain the increasingly fragile link between our professional but increasingly isolated army and the wider community.