Dr Andrew Murrison is the Member of Parliament for South West Wiltshire and has served for thirty years as a regular and reservist, including as a medical officer in Iraq in 2003, and previously as a Shadow Defence Minister. His book ‘Tommy this, an’ Tommy that; the military covenant’ is published by Biteback.
The last government thought soldiers on the streets of London during the Olympics might strike a discordant note. Their concerns were misplaced. As London plays host to the world, our troops have been our very best ambassadors, smiling, smart and polite.
Among those bussed in at short notice are reservists, a genre that, being front and centre during ten years of expeditionary warfare, has turned its back irrevocably on a Cold War identity as Britain’s weekend warriors. But it’s a cadre in crisis with numbers plummeting and ageing. The TA officer corps in particular is in danger of approximating a Dad’s Army demographic.
Expansion and contraction has been the warp and weft of Britain’s military since the mid seventeenth century, a process determined electively at best but generally by events. Whilst the restructuring contained in the Government’s Army 2020 announcement last month is not unusual in the long history of our fighting forces, the wholesale elective recruitment of reservists at a time of relative peace and retrenchment is. Some have suggested Philip Hammond’s Army 2020 reforms will be as far reaching as those of his predecessors Edward Cardwell and Richard Haldane. That’s probably a bit over the top except in respect of the reserve element.
Traditionally, the genius of reserves in the order of battle has been their operational dormancy. Offering deterrence for free as civilians, they compete with regulars less well on price the more you deploy them. Looking ahead, any money dividend will come if, post 2014, the tempo of operations moderates as predicted. It also follows, and probably a good thing too, that governments will have further reason not to engage in foreign adventures since boots on the ground on which they will increasingly rely, being reserves, will join the public payroll from the day they’re called up.
A nation loses its connection with the military if it can’t be seen and an army half the size of Tesco is in danger of becoming a marginal institution in the public’s consciousness. As we draw down from Afghanistan and the media profile of our military declines, bigging up reserves forces, today’s citizen soldiers, offers an opportunity to bolster the Clausewitzian trinity of government, armed forces and society. The reserves inject armed forces and their values into society and, doing so, make both bigger. The process is better advanced in the rest of our ABCA peer group (America, Canada and Australasia) where reserve forces are proportionately more significant. In these countries reservists have a much better defined role in public-facing duties. Homeland resilience, for example, is a strongly reservist competency there, rather less so here having been stillborn under the previous government.
This government has acknowledged that doubling the number of trained reservists is a big ask and understands that retaining them will be even more of a challenge. Unlike regulars, reservists can walk with a day’s notice as too many do. In part this appears to be down to issues like training opportunities and indifferent kit but it is also because of the apparent dispensability that exists on both sides which discourages permanence. The solution is a fundamental reappraisal of the contractual relationship binding reservists and their employers, military and civilian. In this way service in the reserves will be locked in as part of the portfolio career that looks set to be the norm for much of tomorrow’s UK workforce. This is the obvious next step in the professionalisation of our reserve forces that began in 1996 with the Reserve Forces Act and continued in Operations Telic and Herrick. The work on reshaping the reserves announced this summer must be nothing short of a game changer.
Fixed term engagements, longer periods for initial training, merging of regular and volunteer reserves with genuine commitment required of the former, enhanced employment protection for reservists and incentives for employers would help. Replacing annual bounty payments for completion of training commitments with regular army style pension rights and terminal gratuities would encourage reservists wishing to make a long term commitment. A GI Bill-style golden hello expendable on tuition fees might be considered together with a civilian skill bonus for shortage trades and professions. Appraisal and career management must be regularised and full time reserve service normalised adapting the model conveniently available from the US.
The contract is key. Imperatives such as the critical appraisal of the effectiveness and synergy of existing TA and RNR training units across the country, whilst important, should not become a distraction in sculpting the ‘deal’ between reservist and his or her military and civilian employers.
Philip Hammond, renowned for his attention to detail, is just the man to get this right.