Wavell Room
Image default
OpinionPeople and Leadership

Revitalising Our Reserve Forces

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.

Chris Green

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

Related posts

Culture: addressing Apathy and Dishonesty within the British Army.

James Burton

Wavell Room 2018 Review

The Wavell Room Team

Failing to Succeed – A Different Approach

Lt Col Fernando Garetto

Leave a Comment