Julian Brazier MP is a member of the Commons Defence Select Committee and a former officer in the TA infantry and then SAS Reserves.
Last week, John Baron made his case on this site against cutting the Regular Army by 20,000 and building up the Army Reserve from around 15,000 soldiers to 30,000. Two issues have become intertwined: first, the wisdom, in principle, of rebalancing between regulars and reserves and, second, the poor start to the campaign for reservist recruiting. I believe that rebalancing is long overdue – but that aspects of the implementation are flawed.
Individual soldiers stand high in the affections of this country, but, after two deeply unpopular wars, public interest in – and willingness to pay for – defence is disappearing. The connection between our small professional army and the civilian population used to come through volunteer reserves, based around the country, but often undervalued by the regular military establishment.
A century ago, Kitchener pooh-poohed the Territorial Force as a “Town Clerks’Army” and sidelined them to create his “Kitchener” battalions from scratch. Yet Britain’s first commander in France, Sir John French, commented:
“Without the assistance which the Territorials afforded between October 1914 and June 1915, it would have been impossible to hold the line in France and Belgium.”
Territorials went on to win 71 Victoria Crosss by 1918.
Today, America, Canada and Australia, allies with many shared traditions, all have proportionately much larger reserve forces than we plan to do. This keeps a close connection between army and nation, as well as spare capacity – and at a low cost. Typically, when not called out, a reservist unit costs between a fifth and a quarter of the price of its regular counterpart (it is roughly equal when called out). Within the budget available, Britain’s choice is not between 20,000 regulars and 30,000 reservists but just 6-7,000 regulars and 30,000 reservists.
Over the past decade, 28,000 British reservists have deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan. Thirty have given their lives and 70 have won decorations for gallantry but, since 2009, they have been used only as individual reinforcements and, until last year, their training and equipment had been repeatedly cut. The result: plunging numbers and morale.
Yet our allies make much greater use of reserves. The Americans typically use regular units to capture ground and National Guard to hold it. In Afghanistan, I have visited National Guard units carrying out roles as various as mentoring the Afghan Police and defending remote development task forces along the Pakistani border. In Iraq, National Guard units were successful in protecting the civilian population, using their experience as policemen, businessmen, farmers etc. By contrast, the British Army’s unsuccessful dealings with civilians (including failing to recognise the murderous nature of the Iraqi Police), fed the insurrection. During the “Charge of the Knights”, Iraqi forces with American backing had to recapture the ground which our brave, but wrongly directed, army had lost. In Afghanistan, we have reached peak form again, but the US Marines we work alongside are deploying reserve units all the time.
I believe a higher priority should be afforded to our armed forces in the struggle for scarce resources, but this is being confused with special pleading by some regular officers who argue the timeless refrain that modern war is too complicated for reservists. Yet Britain’s senior officer in Afghanistan, Lieutenant General John Lorimer, commented when commanding a brigade in 2007 on one of the last reserve combat sub-units to deploy to Afghanistan:
“Somme Company was an outstanding body of men: well trained, highly motivated and exceptionally well led.”
The Army has carried out some excellent initiatives to reintegrate the reserves, including pairing of regular and reserve units, establishing more senior reservist posts and opportunities for formed bodies to exercise abroad. All of this is being overshadowed by the failure of the current recruiting campaign to achieve what are – both by international and our own historic standards – modest recruiting targets. Why?
Until 2006 recruiting was managed by the Reserve Forces and Cadet Associations (RFCAs) with their volunteer ethos and regional footprint. They maintained the TA in sufficiently good shape that it was able to produce a fifth of all the soldiers in Iraq and an eighth in Afghanistan at the manpower peak a decade ago. Then recruiting was assimilated under control of the Regular Army – and numbers collapsed and have never recovered. It is easy to see why. The Army’s recruiting offices are open only during working hours, Monday to Friday – hardly suited to applicants with civilian jobs. Units used to do their own medicals. First this stopped altogether and then a system was introduced using NHS GPs in a way which was an administrative nightmare. Enlistment arrangements have gone through several evolutions which have made signing on a new recruit so convoluted that many give up in despair, often after months of delay.
As a recruiting officer for a TA infantry unit forty years ago, I would get a critical mass of applicants together and put them through a hard appraisal week end. Then we would sign on the good ones and what was already becoming a band of brothers would start training. One part of the TA, the university OTCs, is still allowed to do that and is oversubscribed. The rest are struggling with an unworkable system into which more and more resources are being poured. Instead, the Army needs to listen to the units and to the RFCAs.
30,000 trained reservists by 2018 is achievable. The planned rebalancing will still leave us with the lowest proportion of reservists in the English-speaking world. It will, however, give us a framework for re-expansion – and help to restore the ties with the British people.