Tobias Ellwood is Conservative MP for Bournemouth East.
To illustrate the changing demands placed on the modern soldier, a U.S Marine General, Charles Krulak, introduced 'The Three Block War' concept – in which soldiers might conduct full scale military action, peacekeeping/stabilisation operations and humanitarian aid within the space of three contiguous city blocks.
The concept is, of course, not new. Prior to the D Day landings Eisenhower reminded his senior generals keen to be the first to reach Berlin, that they are responsible not just for defeating the enemy but for managing POWs, feeding refugees, and developing basic security and governance structures in every town and hamlet they liberate.
Compare this to more recent campaigns in Iraq and initially in Afghanistan, where the war was won but the peace soon lost, as our victorious forces looked over their shoulders expecting the arrival of other agencies/ NGOs to move the post conflict process forward.
The scale of recent defence cuts has obliged the Army to think more cognitively about how it operates and learns the lessons from Iraq and Afghanistan. Key to maintaining its impressive war fighting strengths, and developing greater post conflict capability, is to harness the skills offered by the reserves. So by the end of the decade the regular army will be reduced from 102,000 to 82,000, and the size of the reservists will double in strength to 30,000. This regular/reservist ratio will bring the UK more in line with Australia, Canada and the US where forces are already fully integrated.
As both Generals Eisenhower and Krulak would probably agree, flexibility and versatility is the key as the Army broadens the tasks it is capable of. As any solider who has served in Afghanistan might testify, creating and holding an umbrella of security is only half the battle – only by winning the hearts and minds of the locals, can peace endure. This falls into three principal areas where scope for greater reservist engagement would help
First, continued security and humanitarian aid (training of indigenous security forces, delivery of emergency aid, food, water and basic health services). Second, economic assistance (repair of critical infrastructure, assistance with employment, usually agricultural projects, and education facilities). And – importantly – the development of local legitimate governance. These are often better completed by other agencies (DFID for example has made significant advances in its stabilisation offering), and the army continues to advance its understanding of how these agencies can be put to work, and if temporarily unavailable, fill the gap.
We must also not ignore the swathe of domestic tasks which the army (as assistance of last resort) is often called open to do. From flooding to foot and mouth crisis, fire service or fuel transporter strikes to manning our prisons. To their credit, regular soldiers efficiently adapt to any task thrown at them. The reservist, however, when not in uniform is for example a driver, a computer technician, a teacher or a lawyer. He or she brings to the table a myriad of skill sets which might be needed in natural or man made disasters, at home or abroad.
None the less, the Army's core objectives must not be ignored and half the Army is expected to remain at a heightened state of readiness, focusing on war fighting/intervention.
Whilst the changes make sense they do come with some serious challenges. Mobilisation of reservists tends to be on an individual basis to fill gaps in regular units, rather than whole reservists units in their own right. TA soldiers quickly adapt, and over 20,000 have served in both Iraq and Afghanistan with distinction. But culturally, from a unit perspective the relationship between regular and TA forces is not close. The demand for additional post/pre-conflict skill sets which TA units can provide can help bridge this divide.
There are also major hurdles relating to civilian employers. For this radical new approach to work, whole units of reservists will need the freedom to train and be deployed routinely and from time to time at short notice leave their work place for possibly for up to nine months. This demands the support of civvy street and may require additional legislation.
This transformation is likely to be the biggest overhaul the Army has experienced in decades and change on this scale will inevitably be bumpy. Yet with reservists playing a far more significant role in front-line operations, offering a wide range of cost affective niche capabilities, it has the potential to significantly increase the Army's ability to fight the three block war.