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The Wavell Room recently published a piece by Steve B, setting out a robust vision for reforming the Army Reserve. This vision advanced three central tenets: the disbanding of reserve units and their ‘structural embedding’ in the regular army; the ‘operationalisation’ of reserve training; and the cultivation of a ‘deploy or get out’ mentality across the Army Reserve. While this forthright vision is a welcome addition to the ongoing debate about reserve forces (see here and here), the agenda it presented would benefit from some further scrutiny. As the saying goes, the devil is in the detail. By way of a response, we explore the organisational dynamics that presently condition reserve service – and by extension, any future reforms of the Army Reserve – and seek to contextualise the changes already undertaken.

The central pillar of the reformist vision Steve B presented features the disbandment of reserve units, and the ‘structural embedding’ of reserve companies and squadrons into regular parent units. This premise stems from a belief that the Army Reserve is currently ‘structurally independent’ from the regular army, creating divergent institutional incentives and organisational cultures, ill-suited to the provision of routine support on operations. To a certain extent, however, this conclusion reflects an elementary level of analysis problem. Arguably, the British Army Reserve is already comparatively highly structurally integrated. The US Army, for example, maintains separate National Guard divisions, while the Danish Home Guard is organised as a distinct branch of the armed forces. In contrast, British Army Reserve units are now integrated within regular brigades, as part of the army’s reactive and adaptive divisions. Moreover, though both Danish and American reserve components possess a higher degree of structural independence, their respective operational focus varies significantly. The Danish Home Guard is primarily oriented towards home defence, while the US National Guard has a long history of deploying troops on warfighting operations abroad. While this dichotomy undoubtedly reflects different national traditions and institutional histories, it also underlines a more fundamental point: organisational structure does not, in of itself, dictate operational utility. In the case of reserve forces, the legal framework for reservists’ service – manifested in their terms and conditions of service (TACOS) – is equally defining. 

The British Army Reserve’s TACOS lies somewhere between that of its Danish and US counterparts. While the regular British Army can be rightly described as an all-volunteer force, the voluntary nature of reserve service is fundamentally different in some important respects. At heart, reserve TACOS lacks the same degree of compulsion available to the regular army. Certainly, reservists can be compulsorily mobilised for operations, invoking legal protections for their civilian employment. However, while civilian employers cannot legally discriminate against reservists on the basis of their membership of the reserve, they are not legally obliged to release reservists short of mobilisation – and accordingly, the army does not compel reservists to train. This should not imply that the Army Reserve lacks formal disciplinary or incentivisation mechanisms; it has both. But, as the ultimate penalty for failure to meet training obligations is dismissal from service, the Reserve nonetheless relies on the self-motivation and goodwill of its personnel. As reservists always retain the ability to withhold their labour, they do not simply volunteer once on joining, but effectively re-volunteer on each and every occasion they train. If Army Reserve culture is ‘people focused’ rather than ‘task focused’, as Steve B claims, then it is fundamentally a product of TACOS not organisational structure.

Here, it is worth taking-stock of the efforts to rebalance TACOS, structure, and operational output during the past six years of Army Reserve reform. Future Reserves 2020 (FR2020) sought to transform the much-neglected Territorial Army from a strategic reserve of last resort, to a routinely deployable operational force. As such, FR2020 was designed to increase the readiness and capability of the re-vamped Army Reserve, but it gets no mention by Steve B. In terms of training, one of the most obvious benefits of this programme has been the opening up of both overseas deployments and training courses to reservists, with meaningful uptakes in both. Simultaneously, FR2020 has seen reserve equipment upscaled to something closer to their regular counterparts, facilitating more operationally-relevant in-unit training. In line with the wider army’s “back to basics” agenda, reserve infantry units now follow the BCS Infantry (Reserves) programme, mirroring the regular infantry Battle Craft Syllabus. Similarly, the pairing of regular and reserve units is also slowly helping to build reserve capability and inter-operability. Indeed, some reserve infantry units have even begun to conduct periodic training with Warrior IFV, enabling them to better support partnered Armoured Infantry battalions. Moreover, as reservists become more routinely exposed to the regular army, they do appear to be gradually inculcating aspects of the regular army’s task-focused values and ethos. In parts of reserve, the experience of deploying individual augmentees (and small-scale formed bodies) as part of regular units on TELIC and HERRICK tours during the decade preceding FR2020 also reinforced this shift. As recent research has shown, FR2020 has seen a growing sense of professional ethos and pride among many reservists – and increasing views of Army Reserve service as a part-time job rather than a hobby.

Nonetheless, there remain clear limits to the extent that Army Reserve training can be routinely integrated with the regular army, and they are unrelated to unit-level structures. While reserve training that does not directly mirror that of regular partners may appear ‘broadly for no discernible purpose’, it actually fulfils range of functions rooted in the reserve’s TACOS. Routine reserve training helps to maintain a level of functional competency among reserve soldiers, staving off the worst effects of skill fade. Given that initial training in the reserve is also necessarily short, it also serves to upskill reserve soldiers with training that would otherwise be acquired during regular Phase 1 or 2 courses. Though Steve B rightly notes that poor unit-based training undermines reserve motivation, by the same token, routine quality in-unit training is a significant motivator, helping to retain reserve soldiers. While the provision of alternate ‘centralised training camps not aligned to any cap badge [and] providing core training’ does not seem much different to the current 15-day Annual Continuous Training reserve units provide (save for the removal of a role-specific focus), the expectation that reservists should be integrated into regular training programmes outside of continuous training seems unlikely to be viable – unless that training is itself run at weekends or in the evenings. And if it is, how then will this differ from the constraints of the existing reserve training model, which is already facilitated by attached Permanent Staff Instructors from the regular army?

Greater flexibility in the nature of regular service, allowing more fluid transitions between regular and reserve duty, would certainly offer potential benefits for both organisations – and as Steve B notes, might permit a greater degree of compulsion for reservists on some contract types. Yet, at the same time, the character of reserve service in the UK is also significantly shaped by wider societal and political factors beyond the army. As this article shows, the renewed focus on the reserves manifested by FR2020 largely originated in the political rather than the military sphere, and in particular, in the intra-party political dynamics of the Conservative Party within the context of austerity. As a result, it was initially resisted by senior regular officers, as a plan ‘not grounded in military experience, military fact, or any credible evidence … it was a finger in the wind thing.’ Regardless, a central aim of FR2020 has been to increase Army Reserve strength to 30,100, producing a highly controversial ‘numbers game’ in which  huge emphasis was placed on recruitment activity within the Army Reserve. At one point, the definitions underpinning reserve trained strength metrics were even revised, adding over 2,500 personnel to the reported strength at the stroke of a pen. Yet, despite significant financial investment and a sustained recruitment effort over the duration of FR2020, the Reserve still struggles to recruit to full strength. As of April, the Army Reserve was 27,000 strong, essentially meaning that it has managed to recruit and retain only 5,000 trained reservists in real numbers (i.e., when accounting for discharges) in the six-year span of FR2020.

This is a phenomenon equally felt by the regular army. Notwithstanding initial difficulties in contracted recruitment provision, there is an emerging consensus that difficulties in recruitment and retention reflect important shifts in public attitudes towards military service (as discussed in the conclusions here), prompting some controversial attempts to reposition regular recruiting. While the regular army’s manpower shortfalls and financial constraints rightly focus attention on reserve outputs, significant reforms to the nature of reserve service are simultaneously constrained by the very same modest public appetite for military service. Indeed, FR2020 stopped short of significant changes to reserve TACOS, lacking the political will (and public support) for greater levels of compulsion in reserve service – and the concomitant employment protections this would likely imply. Instead, the MOD has sought more collaborative engagement with employers to encourage good will and cooperative behaviour over reserve service.

Greater levels of structural integration seem likely to only exacerbate these tensions. Certainly, many Army Reserve Centres remain poorly aligned with civilian population dynamics, for a variety of legacy and financial reasons. Yet, co-locating re-subordinated reserve sub-units with regular parent units seems unlikely to alleviate these difficulties; especially given the drive to concentrate regular units in super-garrisons. Indeed, the centralisation of reserve units under FR2020 has generally had a negative impact on recruitment and retention. Equally, relocation would not preclude the need for reservists (regardless of contract type) to balance military and civilian commitments. These challenges are not solely the product of a distinct “reservist” mentality, as the limited gains from current regular-to-reserve re-joiner schemes highlights – despite significant financial incentives. Geography remains important for reserve service, and there are limits to how far and frequently the average reservist is willing or able to travel. While regular units are becoming increasingly centralised, the Reserve must, by virtue of its reliance on civilian life, remain dispersed amongst civil society.

Absent endless queues of would-be recruits, and increased reserve training obligations are liable to result in less reservists – and by extension, less capacity for operational support. Yet, without significant levels of public support, a more robust reserve TACOS is unlikely to square this circle. Without either, greater levels of structural integration are likely to be counter-productive. Indeed, more routine use of compulsory mobilisations (with all the legal protections this entails) may even affect reserve recruitment and retention, when such deployments lack sufficient public support. This reflects the fundamental paradox at the heart of any reserve, and particularly a volunteer reserve: the greater the capability and readiness expected of it, the less latent and voluntary it must become, and the less cost-effective it becomes in comparison to the regular army. You can have a cheaper, larger reserve for the proverbial rainy day, or you can have a much smaller, more expensive auxiliary for use every day, but one thing cannot be both. The Army Reserve’s structural relationship to the regular army is thus more than a simply a question of optimum organisational form. Instead, it reflects far more fundamental issues of civil-military relations that the regular army (and wider society) must equally address, relating to the function and purpose of military forces, the costs our nation is willing to pay for them, and the circumstances under which those forces should be used.

Alex Neads

Alex Neads is a Research Associate specialising in International Security at the University of Bath, and an Army Reserve officer. His research on military capacity building has appeared in the Journal of Strategic Studies. All views are his own.

Dr Patrick Bury
Defence and Security Analyst | Website

Patrick Bury is Lecturer in Defence and Strategic Studies at the University of Bath and a former regular British Army officer. Mission Improbable: The Transformation of the British Army Reserve is out now with Howgate Publishing.

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