Revitalising Our Reserve Forces

Contributor: Chris Green is a former reservist and author of SPIN ZHIRA: Old Man in Helmand. A true story of love, service and incompetence.

While visiting British troops on NATO’s eastern border in Estonia last week, General Sir Nick Carter expressed concern that our armed forces are out of step with society.

Although the military continues to enjoy widespread public support this “is very much based upon sympathy and I think if we wish to sustain our numbers, and indeed the sort of attitude you would want your army to have, I think it’s important that the cursor swings more towards empathy than sympathy.”

This is not the first time General Carter has expressed his concerns. Earlier in the year he stated that so-called Millennials, those born in the 1980s and 1990s, are too “self-interested” to consider a career in the military. With army recruiting failing to meet targets, his apprehensions seem well founded.

Although General Carter maintains that “given the tasks that we have currently got, we have adequate numbers”, the size of the regular force has now fallen well below the downsized 82,000 target imposed after austerity defence cuts. Meanwhile, despite increased investment, the trained strength of the army reserve remains stubbornly flat and analysis by the Reserve Force and Cadet Association (RFCA) indicates that the 2020 target of 30,000 reservists will be missed.

The changing relationship between Britain and her army is central to General Carter’s thinking. This paper proposes an enduring new model for reserve service that offers a more equitable balance of commitment between government, the private sector and society in the provision of our nation’s defence capabilities.

A New Model for Reserve Service

It is now clear that the Reserves in the Future Force 2020 (FR20) White Paper (published in July 2013) assumed an over-reliance on individual citizens to volunteer for reserve service and “a greater willingness by society as a whole to support and encourage reserve service” that has not borne fruit.

The best hope to achieve target now lies with increased engagement in defence across the whole of government, demonstrating a greater commitment to defence of the realm through volunteer reserve service.

Fortunately, successful models already exist within the public sector that could be rapidly expanded to make up the shortfall identified by the RFCA.

Public Sector Engagement

An obvious opportunity for leadership in delivering a new model for delivering defence capability would be to expand the already successful employment of public sector employees within the reserves. The National Health Service is not only a significant employer of reservists but also actively encourages reserve service (within Defence Medical Services) as “a great way to progress your career in the NHS and get new skills.”

The contribution the NHS and its employees have made to recent operations in Iraq and Afghanistan is both considerable and widely recognised. For example, from 2003 NHS Reserves provided over 40% of all hospital-based personnel for operations in Afghanistan.

One of the roles for reservists envisaged by FR20 is to support long term stabilisation operations and to assist in capacity building and security sector reform.

There is a significant pool of talent in public sector organisations such as the fire, prison and police services that have skills ideally suited to these enduring operations but have thus far failed to follow the NHS lead. For example, incidents such as the death of Baha Mousa whilst in British army custody in September 2003 seem less likely to be repeated if detainee handling was managed by reserves drawn from the Prison Service.

Given the nature of stabilisation missions, almost all government departments and agencies from the Attorney General’s office to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs could meaningfully contribute to enduring operations. This represents a source of manpower with relevant expertise that is directly controlled by government. Departments could be mandated to set targets for the delivery of specific defence capabilities and should recruit into roles with a defined reserve liability. The current shortfall in the FR20 Reserve would be filled if just 0.2% of all public sector employees volunteered for reserve service.

This would mark a significant step-change in the way many national and local government departments currently view reserve service, which is not as universally supportive as it should be.

In this way Government not only matches words with deeds but also leads from the front in the delivery of reserve capability through the re-distribution of public resources to the point of greatest need, before calling on its citizens or the private sector to fill gaps in defence capability.

Sponsored Reserves

The Sponsored Reserve concept enables the Ministry of Defence to enter into a defence contract on condition that an agreed proportion of the contractor’s workforce has a reserve liability. These Reservists can be trained and called out to undertake the contracted task as members of the Armed Forces.

Sponsored reserves accounted for just 0.05% of the total strength of the army at 1 July 2014 but offer perhaps the greatest opportunity to meet reserve manning targets.

Sponsored reserves need not be the exclusive preserve of the MOD and might equally be applied to other large public sector contractors. Given that much of the growth in the reserves is anticipated to be in the Combat Support and Combat Service Support roles rather than front line troops it is reasonable to conclude that the majority of skills and trades required will have some civilian equivalency that is already being outsourced in other areas of government.

Both National and Local Authorities can contribute to defence through contract conditions that promote sponsored reserve service and encourage private sector employers to recruit to fill positions that include a sponsored reserve liability in order to win public sector contracts.

This would simultaneously align the interests of government and the interests of employers seeking to win government contracts. With more than half of all public spending going to out-sourced companies this represents a considerable motive and a considerable opportunity.


As General Carter has observed, current reserve recruitment assumes an over-reliance on individual citizens to volunteer that is out of step with society and is failing to achieve target.

The whole of government must show increased leadership and commitment to defence of the realm, expanding the already successful employment of NHS reservists across the entire public sector.

Sponsored reserves offer perhaps the greatest opportunity to meet reserve manning targets by aligning the interests of government and the interests of employers seeking to win government contracts.

The views expressed within individual posts and media are those of the author and do not reflect any official position or that of the author’s employees or employer. Concerns regarding content should be addressed to

Image courtesy of [MOD Copyright 2015]

Leave a Reply

4 Comment threads
3 Thread replies
Most reacted comment
Hottest comment thread
5 Comment authors
TomJedGarry HearnChris Greengolan Recent comment authors

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

newest oldest most voted
Notify of

Chris, thanks and I wonder whether this is a two dimensional issue: one being how to fill the capability gap, and the second being how to create a society that wants to volunteer. The first is definitely filled by your approach. Did you consider the angle of whether the sponsored Reserve approach specifically from Govt depts is actually a recognition that govt has not fully resourced or planned its part in Full Spectrum operations? The second (volunteer society) seems to work in the US but perhaps our vol society is less inclined to pursue the military route and more aligned… Read more »

Chris Green
Chris Green

Garry, Sorry for the slow response. Answering your questions in reverse order: Drawing international comparisons has limitations. Those nations which retain an effective and admired reserve capability, such as the United States and Israel, tend to have a much more robust sense of patriotism ingrained within their societies and a strong sense, real or imagined, that their way of life is under threat and requires protection. The Total or Whole Force concept, introduced in the June 2011 Defence Reform Review, acknowledges that, in the current economic climate, it is not possible to maintain a full spectrum standing capability and seeks… Read more »


The approach to the problem is completely wrong. If people don’t want to volunteer, you’re having an organisational problem, it’s you who has to change to attract more people. Businesses have the same problems with millennials. Learn from their experiences. The way you motivate younger people has dramatically changed, they don’t relate to authority the same way previous generations did and they don’t respond well to attempts to mold them into something they don’t believe in. Which is exactly what the army needs to be able to do properly, but it’s their responsibility and not a mission they can afford… Read more »

Chris Green
Chris Green

Golan, I’m not sure the problem is an organisational one but I agree that the current ‘offer’ is not sufficiently compelling to attract sufficient numbers to join the reserves. I also agree that cultural change is critical to success in the redesign of our Armed Forces. General Carter appears to acknowledge this but I suspect change is unlikely to come from within. Back in 2013 his predecessor, General Sir Peter Wall stated that SDSR reforms created a “once in a generation opportunity to redesign from first principles”. However, despite this clear ambition there is currently little to suggest any serious… Read more »

Garry Hearn
Garry Hearn

Golan, good point and having just read a very good piece on ‘democratisation’ I think there is significant merit in asking those who are not joining, what would make them join, what is they seek, as opposed to ‘this is what we offer.’ However, I do get concerned when we seek to put people into ‘blocks’ eg millennials; there may be some differences in motivations but there are also many many similarities. The danger is we don’t get into the granularity required to be effective: just a thought (from a way before Gen Y and millennial).


Interesting article. I did full time service in the RN in 80’s and 90’s and 6 years in the TA during the 2000’s. I was what is called (or was called) a specialist reservist, having particular specific skills required for a specialist unit. So not a truck driver or an infantry soldier. In fact my unit was two thirds TA and on each third regulars, until successive deployment to Iraq and Afghanistan caused problems for reservists would could not step away from their civvy career, again…… and then the regular component was increased. Specialists are in the kind of roles… Read more »


Some interesting thoughts, however 2 fundamental aspects overlooked: a, the legislative changes that were necessary to make FR2020 work. Looked at financially, the reservist offer gives the opportunity for an individual to gain a second income in proportionate return for their efforts/work at little or no risk to their main income. To make the increased FR2020 commitment work, employers would have had to give increased paid or unpaid leave to the individual and held their position for them when absent. The MOD got push back from the then Department of Business, Innovation and Skills – hence the toothless wonder that… Read more »