James Cleverly is the London Assembly Member for Bexley & Bromley and the Mayor of London's Ambassador for Youth. He has been an officer in the TA for over 15 years and has risen to the rank of Major. He commanded 266 (Para) Battery Royal Artillery (V) which provided troops for Op Telic 1 and subsequent deployments, being mobilized himself for most of 2004. He is currently a TA staff officer in 3(UK) Div HQ.
When someone in a government department starts a statement with the words “This is not about the cost of…”, you know it is time to run for cover.
In this case, the statement went on to talk about the armed forces reserves and claimed that the Review of Reserves' “aim is to ensure that our reserve forces, including the Territorial Army, are correctly structured, supported and resource to meet current and future challenges”. That translates to a cut of over 30% of the reserve forces numbers.
Let's just remind ourselves of a few things. In 2003 around 9,500 reservists (mainly TA) were called up and served in the invasion of Iraq, and there have been hundreds of reservists serving 6-8 months at a time in both Iraq and Afghanistan on the subsequent deployments. The positions that they fill are not safe, quiet back-room jobs; they are often in front-line roles alongside their regular counterparts. The reserves had much asked of them and they have risen to the challenge, and while Iraq has now reduced as a commitment, there is little to indicate Afghanistan will follow suite in the near future.
The reservists' reward for the largest volume and longest period of support for the regular forces since Korea is to have their numbers slashed, their bases sold off and their training cut. It is a disgrace.
Even setting the moral case to one side, the plans do not add up. The forces are below strength and the recent period of heavy commitments has had a detrimental effect on retention. The reserves not only help fill the current shortfall in operational capacity, but continue to be a conduit for recruitment.
Clearly the Royal Naval Reserve, Royal Marines Reserves, Territorial Army, Royal Air Force Reserves and Special Forces Reserves cost money and are not as flexible in their utilization as regulars. But reservists only get paid when they attend (either training or on deployment) so there is no sick pay or holiday pay to worry about, there is no ongoing pension liability, no barrack blocks or married quarters to maintain. The reserves provide a lot of “bang for your buck”.
When defence spending gets squeezed, the reserves get hit first and hardest, they are a soft target. The caricature of the keen but useless, Walter Mitty-style TA soldier is widespread and hardly inspires a desire to fight for their funding. But the truth is that weekend warriors have fought and died alongside their regular counterparts in some of the most dangerous and inhospitable conditions and they deserve some reciprocity for the loyalty that they have shown.
While there is much waste in defence spending, taking the knife to front-line capability is short-sighted and cowardly. If we, as Conservatives, are not willing to protect the budgets of the people who Churchill described as “twice the citizen”, who will?