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Mutual Support: Maximising the Army Reserve

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Since 1908 the UK has maintained a force for home defence.  Originally known as the Territorial Force, it went through several name changes before becoming the Territorial Army (TA) in 1979.  The TA aimed to provide trained soldiers able to support their regular army counterparts and serve as an outlet for people wanting to experience military service without the ability to commit full-time.  However in practice, the TA was seen to be more in-line with Dad’s Army than with a professional fighting force.  It struggled to shake the perception that its soldiers were little more than military enthusiasts in receipt of Ministry of Defence (MoD) funding.  This characterisation is somewhat unfair, considering that the TA provided service personnel to all major conflicts from the Falklands War to Afghanistan, and that it oversaw the first deployment of a full TA regiment with the Royal Yeomanry’s deployment to Iraq in 2003.  Nevertheless, numerous political pressures and changes to modern warfighting doctrine demanded change in how the British organised their reserve forces.  In 2011, the MoD outlined its Future Reserves 2020 (FR2020) plan which sought to transform the TA into the Army Reserve and develop a more professional and capable reserved force able to deploy overseas more readily.

The aims of FR2020, this article would argue, have largely been met.  Reserve soldiers now use equipment more closely aligned to their regular counterparts and are subject to almost identical training standards.  The reservists of 2020 are no longer part of a “drinking club with a gun fetish” (as one Captain once described the TA) or forced to deploy on exercise with Land Rovers made up to be Challenger 2s.  Courses that were once an attendance exercise have been turned into condensed versions of those completed by regular soldiers and judged by the same criteria – with the ability to ‘return to unit’ soldiers that fail to meet the grade.  Rank is now awarded on the basis of competence and professional qualification rather than time served or popularity within a unit, and, as of 2019, new fitness standards were introduced to better measure a soldiers’ ability.  

The financial incentives offered to regular service leavers led to an influx of experience.  Not only in terms of trade knowledge, but also of army systems more widely.  Experience gained by regular soldiers in recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan is now more readily available to new reserve recruits.  The ‘weekend warriors’ of old have morphed into a more capable and therefore deployable asset.

Argument and Structure

However, the demands upon the British Army are changing and the expectations of the Army Reserve are evolving.  Improvements seen in terms of quality beg the question of whether more should be asked of the reserve forces.  With the existing pressures facing the MoD as they are, the political environment lends itself to greater reliance on the use of part-time soldiers.  This article will argue that the reserves are ready to shoulder a greater share of the UK’s defence output.  But, for this to be achievable, the reserves needs to undergo a series of changes before its quality can be cemented.

This article is split into two interlinked sections.  Part one will examine three of the most significant changes needed to enable reservists as individuals.  Part two examines what should be done to enable Army Reserve forces as a whole.  It is often stated that the role of the Army Reserve is to support their regular counterparts – and on one level this is true –  but this article will also argue that the regular Army has a role to play in supporting its reserve elements.  Simply put, for reservists to meet the standards of the future, they require a strong and well-resourced regular army.

A Royal Artillery reservist moves ammunition on exercise.

Part One

Changes to enable reserve individuals

As the Army Reserve has become further professionalised through FR2020, there has been a noticeable improvement in access to up-to-date kit and quality of training; as well as accessibility to trade and skills courses required by a modern Army.  This extends to combined regular/reserve promotion courses.  While this is very positive progress, it comes with a major requirement: time.  It has been coined as “the currency of the Reserves”.  When you consider that the vast majority of reservists juggle a full-time civilian career, family commitments, a social life, and reserve service; time is at a premium.  In this article’s opinion, there are three main courses of action that could significantly benefit reservists as individuals and as a result, the regular Army.

Reinforced and robust employment protection for Reservists

The current legislation (Reserve Forces (Safeguard of Employment) Act 1985), “woolly” employer guidance (“Ministry of Defence handbook for the employers of Reservists” actually contradicts the legislation in some areas), and weak enforcement of breaches means it is easy for employers to make their reservist employees redundant even while deployed on operations.  One author is experiencing this at the time of writing.  Whilst mobilisation documents outline to employers the minimum period of time they must legally re-employ their reservist after having been mobilised, there is little to protect the reservist if their employer seeks to make them redundant either whilst on operational duty or shortly after returning.  

The process by which a reservist can take their employer to a Reinstatement Committee is complex and will often only result in a small fine if the employer is found to have breached the law.  This needs to be reviewed to provide a more robust and “simplified” legal framework so that reservists can deploy on operations and commit to other training/duties with the confidence that their civilian employment is secure.

Intelligent mobilisation framework

Dynamic methods of mobilisation other than the standard 12 months would allow the British Army to significantly reduce the time taken to produce deployable reservists.  Table 1, below, is an example of the time required by a reservist to be trade  qualified (phase two in old speak) for a driver.  Assuming the common constraint that civilian employers rarely offer more than two weeks continuous leave and assuming the reservist already holds a Category B driving license and is able to take two weeks of annual leave per year for reserve training, we can see it would take four years of service to be an operationally deployable driver.  

 

COURSE DURATION YEARS OF SERVICE
Final stage of Basic Training (Bravo) 2 weeks 1
Signals Training (Bowman 762) 2 weeks 2
Category C Driving License 2 weeks 3
Driving FAM course 1-2 weeks 4

Table 1 – Time taken for a reserve soldier to become a trade trained driver 

The Armed Forces Commanders Guide to Reserves states that the average length of service for a reservist is 3 years.  While the author does not have ready access to data on how many reservists are trade trained  (deployable) by the time they leave the Army Reserve; it would be an educated assumption based on table 1 that a reservist serving the average time does not reach a deployable standard.  Compared to the average length of service for a regular soldier being 6 years (usually a LCpl or Cpl by then), you can appreciate the battle for time that the Army Reserve is fighting.

Members of 131 Commando Squadron (Army Reserve) conducting an engineering training exercise with Land Rovers.

The United States National Guard is a good case study for how the training process could change.  On joining the National Guard, a recruit is sent to a 10-week long “Boot Camp”, followed by Advanced Individual Training (AIT) to learn their trade.  This is all continuous training and the soldier’s civilian employment is fully protected during this time.  Standardised initial training across regular and reserve soldiers if they shared the same basic training and trade training would negate risk of a skills gap, and give confidence to reserve individuals with the knowledge that they have had the same depth of instruction as their regular counterparts.  It would also mean that reservists are able to reach a deployable standard within one year’s service.

This approach of dynamic mobilisation would also broaden opportunities to utilise trained reservists by allowing them to be mobilised for long length exercises (e.g. Wessex Storm/Askari Storm/Diamondback), or shorter-term deployments like Short Term Training Teams (STTTs) and Military Aid to Civilian Authorities (MACA).

Realistic Messaging

In contrast to the points above, the annual time commitment required by reservists, as publicised by the Army, is only 19 days.  Considering that the annual two-week Annual Training Period (ATP) is 16 days in length, 19 days is a ludicrous claim to publicise and still expect to have a current and competent reserve force.  

Many of the most capable (and deployable) reservists put in over 40 days training per year.  If the Army Reserve is to further improve its standards and ability to contribute to UK defence output, then the minimum annual commitment must be increased.  By publicising this, the Army would not spend resources on training reserve soldiers who cannot (or will not) commit, and reservists themselves would be able to join their units with a realistic and clear expectation of the time they will be required to offer in order to be a useful defence asset.

Part Two

Changes to enable the reserves as an organisation, and the need for a strong regular force

However, if the reserves as an organisation is to meet current and expected future demand, and offer a more consistent and high-quality defence output, we cannot overlook the role the regular Army has to play.  

Under the current model, each reserve unit is either paired with, or a component part of, a regular unit.  Exactly how this works depends upon the roles performed; in the Infantry and most corps (Intelligence, Engineers, Signals etc), reserve units exist as battalions or regiments united under the same cap badge which in turn feed into a senior regular chain of command.  In the Royal Armoured Corps, the model operates slightly differently in that each reserve regiment operates as its own entity and is paired with a regular regiment.  For example, the Royal Yeomanry is a distinct reserve regiment with its own cap badge, traditions, and command structure but it is paired with the 1st Queen’s Dragoon Guards.  

What this results in is a tangible gap between the reservists and their regular counterparts when opportunities to work together are not utilised fully.  Steve Maguire has posed the solution of disbanding reserve units to create hybrid-units to address this problem.  Some of his arguments are compelling, particularly for a “disengaged” regular soldier, but changes as bold as this aren’t required to maximise effectiveness.  The regular/reserve relationship does not need wholesale integration, just targeted improvement as outlined below.

At the outset, it is worth stating that efforts are being made to improve regular/reserve interoperability as seen through recent deployments.  This includes Op Tosca (peacekeeping in Cyprus) and Op Cabrit (deterrence in Estonia and Poland).  But more can be done by the regular Army across cap badges to enhance the capability and baseline skill level of reservists.  The common perception is that the reserve forces exist to supplement and support the regular Army, and on a surface level this is true.  But with reservists increasingly operating in partnership with regular soldiers we must also acknowledge the role the regular Army can, and should, play in nurturing and supporting their part-time colleagues.  To improve the quality and capability of the UK’s reserve forces, changes must be made to deepen interoperability.

Co-located command elements

One of the most necessary reforms is the integration and co-location of regular and reserve command elements.  In contrast to Steve Maguire’s article covering the subject, this article does not argue that the whole reserve sub-unit needs to be co-located with their regular counterparts, just the Regimental Headquarters.  One of the great benefits of the current Army Reserve structure is the regional availability of roles.  By co-locating the whole reserve regiment alongside their regular paired unit, applicants and those wishing to join the reserves would be subject to greater regional limitations that then already are.  Ultimately a potential reservists cannot be expected to relocate to join their chosen job role if their civilian employment would be negatively affected limiting opportunities.  In the authors’ opinion, and in support of Alex Neads and Dr Patrick Bury,  having  subunits spread across geographic regions doesn’t hinder development or training.  It should be seen as a benefit to provide reservists with greater choice over the job role they wish to undertake.

This argument should not be seen as an attempt to devolve control from reserve officers and install regular counterparts in their stead.  It will remain vital that the reserve chain of command retains control over their own soldiers.   Instead, greater ‘in person’ contact with regular colleagues would present more opportunities to align training outcomes, increase availability and awareness of trade courses and qualifications, and promote deployment opportunities.  

All too often reserve soldiers are offered exercises that promote retention – operating in built up areas and other light role infantry skills are commonly practiced on weekends across cap badges –  when their time would best be spent practicing role specific tasks.  A trooper in a reconnaissance regiment may well enjoy using their weekend to practise urban warfare in Copehill Down, but they would gain more experience and understanding of their role by using that time to practise building and occupying observation posts.  Of course, every service person within the British Army is a ‘soldier first’, but for the reserves to offer the tangible outcomes required, every effort should be made to enhance role specific skills given the existing training deficit with their regular counterparts.  

A soldier leaps out of a window at the FIBUA (Fighting in a Built Up Area) facility at Copehill Down Training Village.

A co-located command element would allow the regular officers to guide reservists on the types of training their soldiers should receive.  Doctrine notes and shared forecasts of events serve a useful purpose, but there is no substitution for regular face-to-face engagement.  This would improve the reservists’ ability to backfill regular sub-units on operations with reduced time spent on ‘upskilling’ when mobilised.  A well-equipped, paired, or otherwise associated, regular unit would be able to offer their reservist counterparts the equipment to enable more specialised training and development.

A co-located headquarters would also enable better dialogue on the availability and demand for trade training opportunities.  Reserve courses are run all too infrequently, and with these soldiers given limited time away from their civilian employment each year, they may find that course dates do not align with pressures imposed on them by their civilian employers or family life.  An integrated headquarters would be better placed to spot associated trends and patterns and should be capable of using regular soldiers to deliver additional consolidated (i.e. intensive mid-week) courses to reservists that are able to take the time off work.  Taking this idea further, Chris argues that this should also be done in conjunction with employers with them paying for some of the time to gain dual use skills.  Yet, such a system will require a significant investment with no guarantee of results when simpler and easier procedural fixes will work.

Army Reserves from 103 Battalion REME training in the UK before deploying to Poland as part the UK’s commitment to NATO enhanced Forward Presence (eFP) in Eastern Europe.

Reservists are used to having to travel for courses, so spending a week at their paired unit would not hinder their availability.  This would actually offer reserve soldiers greater flexibility and thereby reduce the number of conflicts between their service and civilian lives.  Such an outcome would have the added bonus of improving retention within the reserves as they find that they can meet their military career objectives whilst also maintaining a more balanced lifestyle.  For this to work most effectively, the regular Army will require the workforce, equipment and funding to deliver these training courses and exercises.

Others in the Wavell Room have advocated for training that removes the “dependence on cap badge alignment” to enable the reservist to be employed more widely by regular forces.  We feel, however, that maintaining specialism is crucial if reservists are to be deployed with minimal build up time and that imbalances in supply and demand should be addressed at a strategic level.  The creation of a ‘digital jobs market’ makes sense (also described by Chris in this article), especially for reservists who are more accustomed to such systems in their civilian lives. However, training should still be delivered in conjunction with their paired units.  This builds greater unit cohesion, aligns standards, and maintains specialisation.  Co-locating reserve and regular command elements however is essential to enabling a more effectively functioning process.

Streamlined logistics

Linked to this is the need for a more streamlined logistical connection between reserves and regulars.  Availability of kit and equipment is one of the most commonly raised issues by reserve soldiers.  Whilst it seems sensible to offer the latest stock to those that perform their roles day-in day-out, it is crucial that reserves also train with the equipment they would be expected to use whilst operating with regular soldiers.  By combining and integrating logistics systems and processes, reservists will be able to not only procure their own kit more easily, but pool resources with their aligned regulars.  

There has been marked improvement for the reserves in recent years.  The days when a reservist might turn up in DPM whilst the regulars are wearing MTP uniform are long gone.  But basic equipment like Virtus body armour is only just becoming commonplace amongst reserve soldiers in the combat arms.  On top of this, the availability of more specialist equipment, such as sighting systems, remains reduced to reserve soldiers.  Too often reservists are deployed on large scale exercises only to find that they have no experience with some of the equipment they are expected to operate and too little time to familiarise themselves at the start of the exercise. 

The financial pressure the MoD finds itself subjected to has been widely noted, and so we should not in the short term expect an abundance of new equipment in the short term.  Instead it seems logical to promote sharing of resources between regular and reserve units.  It is unlikely, for example, that a regular infantry battalion will be using their thermal sights on a weekend.  This would not necessarily mean that the British Army needs to procure hundreds or thousands more of certain items, just that units are scaled correctly and willing to work together to enhance familiarity with specialised equipment amongst reservists.

Greater appreciation of reserve capability

The final change this article argues for is the need to deepen understanding of reservist capability amongst regular soldiers.  Often regulars will view their part-time counterparts with a certain degree of caution and wariness; unsure of their skill level and understanding.  In extreme cases, although far more than one would like, reservists are looked down upon and face an openly hostile environment.  It is true that reservists are often less practiced than regulars, and it is also true that some reservists are not as good as their regular counterparts would expect.  But in the main, the people that give up their precious spare time to serve in the Armed Forces are highly capable, quick to learn, and more than enthusiastic enough to help smooth over any training deficiencies in the medium to long term.  

Army Reservists ensuring the decent of a Wildcat is safe by giving prompting words of command through his headset to the pilot.

A more considered and tolerant attitude to reserve soldiers can only be achieved through increased working with regulars, and this is an expected outcome of a closer regular/reserve relationship.  This, in turn, as pointed out by Chris in one of his Wavell Room articles, will require reservists to “work hard to shake the perception of unreliability”.  He is right to argue that reservists must stick to commitments made absent a reasonable excuse, such as a family drama, and unexplained absences should affect their annual bounty.

One aspect that is harder to change is at the senior officer level.  Many of these leaders have had limited exposure to reservists beyond the realms of short visits to operational theatres or exercises.  If, at the junior to mid-career stage regular officers are given a more holistic understanding of the reserves, either through postings or by working directly with them more frequently, we can expect attitudes at the top of the Army to slowly change as the next generation of senior leaders fill posts.  Through this greater awareness at the top, we can expect reservists to play more significant and useful roles in terms of defence output, thereby allowing them to support their regular counterparts more effectively.

Conclusion

This article has shown that the British Army Reserve is not the old ‘drinking club’ it once was.  The changes outlined in Future Reserve 2020 have led to a more professional and capable tool in the MoD’s arsenal.  

However, more can, and should, be demanded of the reserves.  Increased employment protection, dynamic mobilisation, and better communication will enable reservists to fulfil their roles more easily, and a new, more integrated relationship with their regular counterparts will lead to less of a “them and us” attitude, and a higher baseline skill level.  This upgrade in the British Army’s defence capability would serve to deliver several tangible benefits.  

Most significantly a more experienced and capable reserve force would help to relieve some of the strain placed upon what is a relatively small regular army.  This could come in the form of reserve units more readily deployed on overseas operations that regulars, generally speaking, have less interest in (Op Cabrit being an illustrative example).  The reduction in rotations to locations of limited interest for regular troops would serve to aid retention and allow them to focus on more kinetic theatres, should this be required in future.  Additionally, this improved offering to reservists, through greater employment protection, flexibility, and more opportunities to train and deploy with regular units,would likely see a more motivated and enthusiastic workforce.  This coupled with changed perceptions amongst society at large, would also help develop a culture whereby the use of reserves is less frowned upon, more understood, and more appreciated.

Jeremy Barton

Corporal Jez Barton has been an Army Reservist in the Royal Yeomanry for 8 years. Working in the footwear industry in his civilian life, he is currently deployed on Op CABRIT (P) as a Jackal crew commander in the hybrid 1st Queen’s Dragoon Guards/Royal Yeomanry sub-unit ‘Cassino Troop’.

Ewen Dymott

Trooper Ewen Dymott joined the Army Reserve in 2018 and is currently serving as a Jackal operator on OP CABRIT (P) in the hybrid 1st Queen’s Dragoon Guards/Royal Yeomanry sub-unit ‘Cassino Troop’.  In his civilian life, Ewen works as a political consultant to defence, financial services, and sports businesses.

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