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Reimagining the Army Reserve #1; Co-Creating Value

The Future Operating Environment concept paper lays out what the UK expects future conflict will look like.  The scenarios range from state on state conventional warfare, to little green men and cyber-attacks.  A combination of all of them seems the most likely. Yet, the requirements of each are vastly different.  Conventional conflict requires lots of kit. Other types of warfare require lots of skills. When considering defence planning, the advice of Sir Michael Howard to ‘not be so far off the mark that it becomes impossible to adjust’ has never been more difficult to achieve. 

A widely held view across the British military is that western forces no longer need mass.  But it is not a view held by all. For example, the US Army Chief of Staff, General Milley, is explicit that future wars will not be short and that they cannot be won by technology alone.  If Milley is right then mass will continue to count. And this is where Britain has a problem. 

Britain’s Army is as small as it has been since the 19th century;  The Royal Navy is fixed with one carrier group;  There are concerns exist about how many Joint Strike Fighters the UK can actually afford.  Others are already questioning if British defence is too brittle to use. 

This article presents an affordable solution to the problem of mass for the Army specifically, and the Forces more widely.  It presents a case for a more useable, better trained, and larger Reserve Force. To achieve this, Defence needs a significant reimagining of how Reserve Forces are conceived, trained, and used. 

Three parts… three arguments

This long read is split into three separate articles, each focusing on a different part of the changes needed.

Part one proposes significant legal and process reforms to incentivise both Reservist personnel and, crucially, businesses.  The proposed changes sharpen the focus of Reserve forces towards supporting operational outputs and providing greater protection for individual Reservists.  Defence also needs a new relationship with business which ‘co-creates’ value whilst recognising the wider benefits to society. 

Part two argues that Reservists should stop trying to specialise.  Instead, the focus should be on becoming more useable generalists. This article gives examples to show that, no matter how dedicated they are, Reservists simply don’t have the time to become proficient specialists.  Under this proposal Regular personnel will specialise more broadly to compensate.

Part three will concentrate on ‘the Reservist experience’.  People have two careers for two reasons; pay or passion.  To get home from work on a Friday and don a uniform takes passion.  Yet, Reserve training is neither progressive nor is it delivered in a consistent way.  This saps passion and undermines the utility of the Reserve. Part three argues that more training should be delivered by unit Permanent Staff with centralised and shared national events.  These three strands combine to offer a structural re-imaginational of how the MOD views and deploys it workforce.  It starts to remove the artificial divides between Regulars and Reservists. Across Defence the utility of the Reserve is hotly debated.  However, in contrast to Steve B’s and Patrick Bury and Alex Neads analysis of the Army Reserve, which primarily focus on the structure, this proposal seeks to identify practical changes to enhance the utility of the Reserve within its current format.

The Legal Obligation

Army Reservists are required to serve for 27 days per year with some only having a minimum commitment of  19 days a year. There are individuals who can and give more time than this, within various arrangements, ranging from ‘as and when’ to full contracts.  Yet relying on volunteers does little to enable the MOD to plan to use the Reserve effectively. The first change this article proposes is to increase the baseline legal obligation a Reservist agrees to on enlistment. 

Under this proposal, Reservists will be legally required to complete a minimum of 100 days service after training and be available for one six month period, within a 5 years window. 

Requiring a higher level of commitment may discourage some from joining.  Yet, it enforces the idea that service, both Regular or Reserve, is not to be entered into lightly.  The nation, in turn, will make a greater investment in the individual. This is a significant legal change from the current position in which Reservists have very limited obligations placed upon them.

100 Day Breakdown

70 of the 100 days should be used in support of Regular operations, training, or gaining qualifications.  This is of significantly more value to the Forces than the current system of fragmented weeknight and weekend training which makes up the annual 27 days service.  It forces a concentration on gaining skills in support of Regular force outputs. The other 30 days could be used for unit training, sport, physical training, adventurous training, or other activities in support of service ethos.  

The six month period would be long enough for a four month tour with pre-deployment training and leave.  It does not align to future Regular tour lengths. But, this is important because it is the about the maximum career break a person can take without doing harm to their civilian employment prospects.  This compromise is needed to ensure that Reserve service remains viable as a part time job that doesn’t overmatch primary employment. In another Wavell Room article, I suggested more flexible terms of service based on days, not years, served.  Applying this principle to the 100 days builds maximum flexibility for the individual; It gives greater flexibility to choose when to serve or when they cannot.  Yet, to ensure deployability, it would require an appropriate legal framework to enforce service and offer greater protections than the current offer.

The vehicles in convoy are from the Third Battalion the Mercian Regiment on operations in Afghanistan. Has the Army done enough to utilitse the full potential of Reservists?

Sustaining Mass?

There are bolder additions to this proposal.  If the Army Reserve was increased to 50,000, and with this legal structure, the Reserve would be able to provide about an additional Brigade’s worth (3,000) of soldiers on a sustained basis over five years.  This would be a potent boost for the UK’s 3rd Division.

This 3,000 would be largely made up of sub-units as opposed to individual augmentees which have formed the majority of recent reserve deployments.  A Reserve unit could have five deployment windows spread over the five year period giving a set of options. This would also give Reserve unit sufficient notice to generate the required workforce.  This gives significant flexibility to its Reservists allowing them to balance their commitments.

Some back of fag packet maths shows that by increasing the entire Reserve Force establishment by 70% which would give an Army Reserve of 50,000 the total additional bill for wages for would be £24M.  Although this doesn’t include the other increases in overheads (more of which later) this is a cheap way to gain an additional Brigade’s worth of troops on a sustainable 5 year deployment cycle.


Currently, to be considered ‘efficient’, Reservists must serve 27 days a year, pass their mandated annual training, and conduct an Annual Training Event (ATE).  There is little guidance around what an ATE should involve, less that it needs to be 12 days in length. This means that units choose their objectives with no formal alignment with output.  As another analysis of the Reserve put it, the current Reserve structure is ‘independent’ from and not accountable to Regular outputs.

A better measure of efficiency is to  ‘structurally’ align training with Regular force outputs.  Under this proposal, a Reservists efficiency would firstly be judged on passing mandated courses within the training year.  The second measure would be deploying and supporting Regular training or gaining qualifications. This offers a more operationally focussed view than the current ‘12 days’ approach. 

In-line with this increased commitment to operations, the Forces would ensure the Reservist is deployable when they want to go.  Defence General Practice medicine, Dental, and Physiotherapy would all be provided ensuring flexibility of choice in deployment for both the Reservist soldiers and for the Forces.  This proposed structure asks more from individuals, so the offer should also be increased to ensure a whole force approach.


If you want people to do something make it easy

 Richard Thaler, Nobel Prize Winner

To become meaningful, a commitment has to be honoured.  Both the volunteer and the Regular force must have confidence in the system. 

Reservists complain that opportunities are cancelled late in the day by Regular counterparts.  If this happened, the Reservist would be found work that is similar in nature or still be paid and given credit for the days served.

Conversely, Reservist needs to follow through on the commitments they have made.  If a Reservist booked onto training and didn’t show up without reasonable reason they could lose a percentage of their bounty payments for that year.  In extremis, Reservists could be charged with being AWOL.

Choice, flexibility and ease

The current Army Reserve model concentrates on aligned cap badges.  This restricts how Reservists can be employed by the Regular force. As Patrick Bury and Alex Neads point out, this has led to a growing sense of professionalism and unit pride.  On the other hand, it does not align supply and demand as the Army Reserve does not enable Reservists to assist other units.  

Opportunities to support the Regular Force, qualify or train, should be advertised through a ’digital jobs market’ probably hosted on Defence Connect.  Individuals would define the periods when they were available for service. The marketplace would then ‘push’ opportunities to them, by unit, trade, geography, or any other chosen criteria needed.  

Similar systems already exist to book holidays in which users input dates and check availability.  Across the business world, push notifications can increase spending by up to 10 times.  If this behaviour is translated into Reserve attendance, it would generate more qualified individuals offering greater capability to Defence.

If such a system was aligned to JPA, an individual’s qualifications could also be automatically checked and  ‘push’ emails automatically generated. This would allow the Regular force to target opportunities to force generate the skills they require.  It also allows Reservists to select where they might want to fill gaps in their experience. This is a significant upgrade to the current, manual, system of volunteering creating significant flexibility for both Regulars and Reservists.  It removes a dependence on cap badge alignment and provides a new way of aligning supply and demand. Regular and Reserve unit links may increase individual pride, but to be successful, Defence must match supply and demand across the whole force.

Army Reserve soldiers from The London Regiment undergoing public order training alongside the 1st Battalion The Irish Guards, prior to deploying on the United Nations peacekeeping mission to Cyprus.

Business and the Forces

The Defence Employer Recognition Scheme (DERS) is used by the MOD to engage with and encourage support from employers to employ Reservists.  It has three tiers, Bronze, Silver, and Gold. Depending on the level of support the employer offers they receive an award.  These awards are normally displayed as a way to attract Reservists to their organisation. Yet, apart from a badge and a sense of civic duty, the current model of reserve employment offers few tangible benefits for employers. 

Research conducted by Supporting Britain’s Reservists and Employers (SaBRE) has tried to quantify the value of the many soft skills that Reserve service develops.  But another study found that fewer than half of people put soft skills down on their CV, indicating that people don’t believe that soft skills are important to employers.  When discussing the steps needed to get my company, which has thousands of employees, to Gold DERS, the fact that the Head of HR’s uncle had served in the RAF was more influential than any facts and figures about the value of soft skills.  This shows that engagement matters.

Opportunity; inconsistent business demand

Some industries have predictable inconsistent demand for labour.  For example agriculture (picking season), tourism (school holidays) and the UK’s largest employment sector, retail (around Xmas).  Jaguar Land Rover (JLR), a Gold DERS member, recently asked its members to move to a three day week but remain on full pay for three months reflecting a decrease in their demand.  This presents an opportunity, if Defence is flexible enough to exploit it. 

Both Regular outputs and Reservist training could be planned in aligned periods of low demand.  For example, the Army could work with Tesco, a Gold DERS employer and one of the UK’s largest employers, to determine when was the best time to release its Reservist employees.  This offers a tangible benefit. The employer pays the two weeks that they already do, and the Reservist is enabled to fulfil their more of their 100 day liability in one go.

Drivers are critical to the Army and Defence offers opportunities for Reservists to gain qualifications that can be utilised by civilian employers. But is Defence flexible enough?

Co-creation of value

Employers could also highlight any skills it wished its employees to receive from the Reserve.  One example of this is Lorry Drivers. Both the Army and employers have a high demand for people holding C+E drivers licenses (truck and trailer).  An employer could offer additional paid time off for a Reservist to attend mutually beneficial training provided by the Army. Both sides invest and both sides benefit.

Opportunity: self-employed Reservists

Around 4 million people in the UK categorise themselves as ‘work(ing) on their own, with a partner but no employees.  This is a rise of 2.4 million since 2001.  To put this into context, a 2012 survey put the NHS as the world’s fifth largest employer, with 1.7 million people.  Reserve service could form a significant part of a ‘portfolio career’ for self employed people. 

The current system of pay however, discourages the self employed from engaging in significant blocks of service.  Any reimagination of the Reserve must offer more support to self employed Reservists.

Self employed Reservists won’t have the legal support in place that a big employer such as Tesco does.  Tesco also has the time to engage with DERS. A simple solution might be to entitle them to multiple bounty payments (with a maximum set) each year dependent on their level of service.

This proposal requires legal change

As Bury and Neads point out, Defence is attempting to work in collaboration with employers; But the current method of doing this falls short of a focus on requirement.  Defence needs legal and financial policy changes to enable the co-creation of tangible value with employers. This will protect both Reservists and employers and requires a reimagination of how Reservists train to better align to business. 

On one hand, some will advocate for laws compelling organisations to allow Reserve service.  On the other, ‘business’ activity contributes 69% to national income.  This allows the country to afford the military that we have.  The Government is unlikely to legislate against the Golden Goose.  But legal changes are required for any reimagination of the Reserve to be effective and to ensure that civilian employment doesn’t become untenable. 

In the USA, a country that most would regard as more supportive of Reserve service than the UK, Reservists, have lost their civilian jobs as a consequence of service.  Many of the problems arose in the States because the law did not define the term ‘adequate’ sufficiently.  As such, it was open wide interpretation by employers, who, naturally then looked to the bottom line above a sense of civic duty.  This is indicative of a lack of dialogue between the Forces, employers and Reservists. As Bury and Neads say, political appetite for this type of reform is limited. But political appetite will be a crucial part if these changes are to be successful.  Fundamentally, what does the nation value? A paper reserve or a deployable force?

#1 Conclusion

Part one of this series has proposed legal and process reform putting flexibility at the centre of Reserve forces.  The current approach neither offers individual Reservists flexibility to be engaged, nor reliable support to Regular Defence outputs, as the nation should expect the Reserve to do.  The changes proposed above align Reserve service to Regular output by matching supply and demand. 

Reservists are different to Regulars and cannot manage their time in the same way.  Expecting the same behaviour will only lead to frustration and missed opportunities.  The use of technology to better advertise opportunities must be exploited to enable Reservists to support regular outputs.  The technology already exists to do this, if Defence can put it to use.

The move to a 100 days minimum commitment and a six month deployment places a firm, binding, expectation in both the minds of the Reservists and a planning assumption for the MOD.  This represents a significant change to the current expectation of individuals mobilised to support aligned units. 

Part two of this series will argue that Reserves need to stop specialising and become better, and more employable, generalists.

Cover photo courtesy of Elliott Brown; Link to photo and license.

British Army

Chris Has 17 Years leadership experience. Commanding on operations in the Balkans, Northern Ireland, Sierra Leone, Iraq and Afghanistan. He has worked on the Staff in MOD, Army HQ and Brigade HQs

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