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Long Read People and Leadership

Reimagining the Reserve #3; The Reservist Experience

In part one of this mini-series, we looked at reforming the legal obligations on both Reservists and their employers.  Part two examined why Reserves specialising is impractical and argued that the Reserve should focus on providing a more reliable stream of generalist soldiers.

The term ‘experience industry’ was first coined in 1998.  Since then people everywhere talk about ‘the experience’ of everything from a once in a lifetime trip to the Maldives to less appealing events such as going to the dentist.  Customers pay for, and expect, a good experience. The quality of their experience directly influences their desire to return.  

The Forces must think more about service personnel, both Regular and Reserve, as consumers of their ‘experience’ at work.  Some people are as interested in a good experience as they are in money. If it’s good they will stay, if not they won’t.  And, in the current legal framework, it’s much easier for Reservists to vote with their feet and leave.

The core argument of part 3 is that the Reserve lived experience disincentives service.  This article offers three changes to improve the Reserve experience. Firstly, Regular Permanent Staff should deliver a more cohesive and nationally coordinated training programme.  Secondly, it argues that training should be modular, better enabling Reservists to attend. Thirdly, it presents a case for changes to Reserve units laydowns to allow them to grow (or shrink) and move away from mirroring Regular structures.  

These reforms would combine to change the way the Reserve is managed and allow individuals a wider, national, choice of locations and training.  These points combine to form a style of reserve service which individuals can participate in nationally. A ‘national’ reserve model with its foundations built from the traditional cap badge alignment that form the core of fighting power.

Debatable Drill Nights

Reservist recruits are most likely to come from Generation Z, who seek purpose in what they do and will leave an organisation if they cannot progress.  But, unlike generations before them, they don’t automatically equate progress with promotion.

It is debatable whether Reservist drill nights currently offer a sense of purpose sufficient to incentivise service.  The reasons for this are varied and interlinked. Because Reservists are busy, it can be difficult to attend. Because of inconsistent attendance, progressive training is difficult to conduct.  This fragmented training covers the same ground repeatedly. In turn, fragmented training lacks purpose and does not progress to anything tangible. Through this lens, the value of weeknight training is debatable.  Without purpose or progress, people will not turn up. Conversely, the opposite is also true. Good quality, progressive training, will incentivise attendance. 

The need for the Reservists to pass their Annual Training Tests (MATTs) is a basic requirement for all soldiers.  MATTs form the bedrock of soldiering skills are solid, the minimum knowledge and testing should be taken seriously.  Yet, in the Reserve, MATTs refresher training and testing is often done in a concentrated timeframe, such as on a single weekend.  This is not quality training developing strong foundational skills. It is more of a chore to be done in the quickest time possible to get back to the ‘fun stuff’.  In turn, this means Reservists are often asked to run before they can walk.

Walking and Running

This well-intentioned act, designed to keep Reservists engaged, is misguided.  Training like this signals that the Army places a low value on core soldiering skills.  Reservists have generally only had four weeks of basic training. In contrast, Regular personnel receive six months or more giving them much greater experience.  Therefore, Reservist ‘muscle memory’ needs more work. Some things are simple drills and might only need a little refreshing. Other things, like navigation, benefit from sustained practice.  Different individuals will need different levels or refreshing. A recent ex Regular probably needs much less than a newly qualified Reservist. This makes delivering training difficult to gauge and most is pitched to the lowest common denominator.

Some skills need more practise than others!

Availability and qualifications

This rushed weekend methodology for completing MATTs is driven in part by Reservists’ sporadic availability.  Another manifestation of this is that Reservists who work away from home during the week often can’t easily attend and miss training.  They can’t easily continue to progress towards completing their in camp MATTs as they can only currently attend their unit location.

Compounding this, there is a broad insistence that Reservists deliver training to Reservists.  The rationale for this, to give Reservists experience in instruction is a purposeful objective.  To achieve this, however, Reservist instructors need time, which they usually do not have much of, to prepare lessons and training.  Even with the good moves afoot to pay for preparation, it is time not money that is often the limiting factor.

Because of this restriction, Reservists holding instructor qualifications are rare.  Because of their qualification, a greater expectation to attend is placed on them than non-qualified Reservists.  There is no minimum acceptable (or even suggested) threshold for instructor to student ratio. Combining this without a good understanding of who will turn up to, for example, a Weapon Handling Test, might mean an instructor travels for a couple of hours for a fifteen minute session of productive, progressive work.

Time and Location

Reserve facilities should, by default, be easily accessible easily to Reservists.  Concerns around security are not beyond modern technology and are largely reasons not to do something.  The prevailing attitude is perhaps best summed up by Stinger in Top Gun; ‘You don’t own that plane [MODNet computer, parking space, treadmill] the tax payers do’.  The Reserve needs a more mature model for enabling Reservists to serve.  The traditional cap badge boundaries need to be replaced with a model focused on output not process and procedure. 

As it stands, each Reserve unit is responsible for organising its own training which is time consuming.  For example, conducting a range recce could be a full day activity which, if the range isn’t open on the weekend is an additional days holiday to be used by a Reservist.  Then there is the insistence on getting a hire car or having business insurance. Then the Reservist may need to drop the car off at a manned locations involving yet more travel.  Or they need to get written authorisation prior to any JPA claim. So an hours range recce takes eight hours or more.     

If Reservists want to get access to Defence computer network, MODNet, they can’t go to their nearest Army Reserve Centre during a lunch break or an evening and get on with it.  If they manage to press the right one of the numerous buttons they are confronted with and if (a big if) someone answers, they are barraged with questions other than ‘can I see your ID card please’?  Then, five minutes after logging in, someone comes and asks them what they are doing on ‘their computer’. 

Yet, Reservists all serve the same master and support the same force.  These frictions are the result of cap badge loyalties and are blockers to Reserve efficiency.  The system would need to change to reflect the increased level of commitment expected from Reservists under this proposal.  Military facilities across the country need to be easily accessible to all Reservists; sailors, soldiers and airmen.

The Army Reserve has a national footprint. But does it have a national outlook?

To best exploit this national model, the Reserve also needs to focus on its training design delivery.  Reservists are not the same as Regulars, and need a different model to enable progress.

Improvements to Training Design

To make training progression easier requires three things.  Firstly, courses must be modularised to make them more accessible.  Online training that people can follow at their own time should be used widely.  Virtual classrooms could be set up on drill nights with a lead instructor centrally located and appropriately qualified assistants if needed at other training centres.  The technology already exists to do this. This would reduce the ‘hurry up and wait’ that Reservists complain of due to lack of instructors.

Secondly, modularised training should happen in smaller chunks.  For example, instead of instructor qualifying courses happening in two-week blocks, several weekends could be used.  12 days training could be achieved over five weekends possibly at different locations. These need not be just instructor courses.  A series of week-long modules based on Training Objectives from Regular courses would be defined. This offers skills progression that is currently ad-hoc and not progressive. Completion of all of these modules would be a prerequisite to being fully trained and therefore eligible for consideration for promotion.  Accurate, easily accessible, digital record keeping is already possible to ensure that training is not duplicated.

A Reservist soldier demonstrating a virtual reality headset. Can the Army Reserve better utilise technology to deliver training?

Finally, courses should be bundled.  When a person attends their Junior Non Commissioned Officer Cadre, the course already has a defence instructional techniques qualification built into it.  Aligning training to career progression would ease the time burden and enable Reservists to expand their portfolio of skills.

Improvements to Training Delivery

If poor quality training disincentives attendance, then the opposite is also true; good quality training is likely to increase attendance. 

Training should, by and large, be delivered by the permanent staff cadre or suitably experienced Reservists in extremis.  The permanent staff have the time to plan and deliver training properly. To achieve this, they would need a minimum of one MATT instructor qualification.  The two-week Reservist courses would provide a ‘good enough’, short version allowing PSIs to get qualified quickly but permanent staff have more time to gain experience.  The ideal solution would be for them to be akin to Sandhurst Colour Sergeants, who can teach any MATTs lesson.

Nationally Coordinated

To get training, and especially MATTs, completed efficiently and effectively, two of every four Reservist weeknights per month should be reserved for either MATT refresher training or testing.  That is to say, across the country, Reserve units will host MATT training on a regular basis that any reservist can attend. With four of nine full MATTs achievable in camp, as well as significant parts of other MATTs, this would lend itself to each unit doing one a month.  Each MATT would be refreshed and tested twice a year at each Reserve training centre. 

There is already demand for shared training and the Reserve has not been quick to identify or meet it.  A quick look through Defence Connect Town Hall will show you people asking about MATTs weekends and actively looking to complete mandated training.  The Army Reserve has a problem aligning demand with its supply of people stunted by a reliance on traditional unit structures. Part one of this proposal outlined a booking.com style system for booking training; Reserve units should also advertise their events to better enable a national attendance. 

National Reserve Structure

Currently, the Army works on the ‘if we build it [draw a goose egg on a map] they will come’ philosophy for unit laydowns.  Yet, year after year, units remain with places unfilled or low attendance, yet they are not reformed.  This means that some units which could grow, can’t. Strong pockets of interest should have workforce requirement (the egg cups that hold and pay for people) transferred to them from areas which traditionally struggle.  This shrinks units to sustainable sizes or grows popular locations. This would help identify where best practice was taking place allowing for lessons to be learned and applied across the Reserve. It allows the Reserve to focus its resources for best effect. This will result in a reshaping of Units.  But so what? As Steve B has pointed out, the current model of Reserve units seeks to mirror regular laydowns.  Few have questioned why this mirroring is needed?  Given that Reserve units are unlikely to deploy, there is no good reason why Reserve units could not have six, seven, or even eight sub units as long as interest was maintained.  In turn, this would allow more concentrated, purposeful, progressive training and with it higher attendance and increased capability.

Conclusion

As the MOD looks to the future, the requirement for combat mass cannot be discarded, as convenient as it might be for political purposes.  A shrinking Regular force may not be big enough to be relied on to meet the challenges of the future. The seduction that technology can win wars from a standoff is, in the words of General Milley a myth.  ‘After the shock and awe comes the march and fight’ and this needs mass.  That being said, future conflicts will require wider use of evolving technology, which in turn relies on training and practice.  It is only our Regular Forces that have the time to do this properly. 

A smart, cost-effective way to meet this challenge is a structural re-imagination of the Reserve force.  This series has presented three central arguments that would constitute the significant reform that the Army Reserve needs.

Part one identified legal and process changes needed to enable success.  Part two argued that Reservists need a greater focus on generalist skills and becoming more employable alongside regular outputs.  Part three has argued for a national reserve model in which Reservists can exploit the policy and legal changes to complete critical training.  These actions reinforce each other. They would help to create a more flexible, capable and deployable Reserve. Together, they represent a genuine reimagining of what the Reserve can offer the nation. 

About the author

Chris

British Army

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

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