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Is the overarching principle of Future Reserve 2020 realistically achievable by the British Army?
As we reach the end of 2020, regardless of restrictions and delays by the COVID-19 virus and the fallout from it, the Future Reserve 2020 (FR2020) policy should lead to a fundamentally different Army Reserve. The FR2020 policy was developed in order to learn lessons from operational deployments and to create a Reserve that is fit for purpose.
Having been a reservist for nearly fifteen years, and having deployed operationally, I have been able to see the transformation of the Territorial Army (TA) into the Army Reserve (AR). The development taking place to transform the TA into a respected force that regularly supplies individual augmentees to the Field Army is being stymied by its mismanagement across the board. Many of the issues identified by FR2020 are still extant, with the cumbersome and inappropriate reporting process just one example. Indeed, FR2020 has been frustrated by rivalry and a lack of action between departments that are supposed to work together for a common goal. This was explored by Patrick Bury and Sergio Catignani in their scholarly analysis of FR2020, which criticised the intra departmental rivalries and lack of communication as being characteristic of poor management of the Reserves.
Furthermore, the quality of the soldier being promoted in the AR has diminished. This is a direct result of a lack of understanding of the role and capabilities of the Army Reserve has and resulted in unachievable demands placed on those in full-time employment trying to balance their civilian jobs with their commitment to defence. The shift towards a “One Army” method of training and attendance on Regular courses means that those able to and most likely to attend and progress are the unemployed or the unemployable. This creates other issues further down the line relating to morale, quality of training, and the perception of the Reserves. Furthermore, the misapplication of the “One Army” concept and a haphazard approach to the allocation of permanent staff has failed to develop the Reserve into an effective tool for supporting the “Whole Force”.
The desire for a fully integrated Reserve into the field army does not appear to have advanced at all since the publication of FR2020, and this is unlikely to ever be achieved unless there is fundamental change. In order to effect this change, senior elements of the Regular Army need to adjust their expectations and decide clearly on what type of a Reserve they actually want with a clearly delineated role. In conjunction, the AR needs to evolve professionally to become suitable for its role of supporting the Regular Army, with a more robust approach to Military Annual Training Tests (MATTs) a suitable starting point, especially considering physical fitness can be worked on in reservists’ spare time. Whilst FR2020 was a good start to this process, at this point it serves as a policy document not been acted upon by any stakeholder.
From the Territorial Army to the Army Reserve
During the days of the Cold War, the role of the TA was seen fundamentally differently to the later role it undertook upon commitments to Iraq (Operation Telic) and Afghanistan (Operation Herrick). Originally conceived of as a force to deploy en masse as formed units, it became a system of supplying individual augmentees to units short on numbers. This later evolved into common practice where units would expect to take reserve soldiers away with them for an operational tour. The TA was then renamed to the AR, in order to remove some of the negative connotations of the “Cold War Warrior”. This was a critical shift for public perception of the Reserves, which previously did not see its value or understand what it does, which led to recruiting limitations and a lack of public support.
As a result of the collaboration and visible sacrifice and hard work of the AR during this period a new respect began forming between the Regular Army and their reservist counterparts, through the comradeship of the battlefield and the recognition that some had left behind a comparatively easy life to voluntarily deploy to a warzone.
The recognition that the Reserve was more professional led to a swathe of recruits who saw a chance to experience operational deployments in a respected role. Since the end of Operations Telic and Herrick, this recruitment stream has dried up. combination of circumstances leading to fewer opportunities to deploy and poor management of recruitment has led to a potentially fatal chain of events for reserve recruitment in general, and the integrity of the FR2020 review in particular.
A combination of factors, including the takeover of recruitment by Capita, it has become less efficient. This has led to embarrassing headlines in 2014 speculating that at one point more people joined Daesh (ISIS/ISIL) than were serving in the Army. According to the government’s own statistics, recruitment was especially poor in this period with 3,020 people joining the Army, but 4,800 leaving the Reserves. Most concerning, 1,900 of these people were untrained, potentially lending weight to the argument that a slow recruiting process was leading to frustration. Whilst recruitment has shown some improvements, it is still nowhere near the target of 30,000 trained personnel according to the current 2020 quarterly statistics.
Previously, recruitment was relatively easy for the Reserve, where a potential soldier could train at the local Army Reserve Centre (ARC) until their uniform and medical were arranged. Whilst these delays cannot be attributed solely to Capita, the move away from the Regimental system towards a unified system has certainly caused delays. When I joined in 2006, I rather nervously approached the ARC on the first Wednesday of the month, was given my medical the following week, attested the week after and was fully training with uniform by the first Wednesday of the following month.
Timelines have since become much longer, with the process from recruit to trained soldier taking anything from nine months to two years. Official statistics on this timeline are not available, but online military forums such as Facebook and the Army Rumour Service share palpable frustration of the potential soldiers at the amount of time it takes. Even scholarly reviews are less than complimentary, with Crawford (2019) describing Capita’s contribution to recruiting as “underwhelming”. Delays are to the detriment of the recruiting enterprise and the Reserve in general; times change and so do people’s priorities, and over two years many recruits simply drift away and are never taken on strength as fully qualified reservists.
If we as a reserve force cannot recruit enough soldiers to make training meaningful, there is no point in sorting out the other myriad issues with the AR. Low recruitment fails to achieve the turnover of phasing older individuals out who are unable to engage in essential warfighting activities. A common experience of the AR is where a unit deploys to a training event and senior non-commissioned officers (SNCOs) outnumber private soldiers, and when some of these SNCOs are in their fifties with associated medical conditions it can mean that some activities are impossible to conduct. This is evidenced in difficulty conducting practice attacks of enemy positions (section attacks), a basic requirement of infantry skills, requiring two non-commissioned officers and six private soldiers as a minimum. Furthermore, there are simply not enough soldiers progressing through the labyrinthine system of promotion and courses to fill the spaces that come from natural wastage, leading to frustration and retention becoming an issue. This can lead to many soldiers becoming bored and frustrated with the impact that Reserve has on family time if they feel the training is not worth the upheaval. This further leads to poor retention and the associated diminishing of operational effectiveness.
Promotion and the “One Army” Concept
Whilst the quality of recruitment and then training impacts retention, so does the system of progression. As time goes by during their careers, many reserve soldiers aspire to lead and to undertake courses to further their development. These courses used to be run on a modular basis, usually over consecutive weekends or, more rarely, during a course concentration.
When the AR was created from the ashes of the TA, the shift was made towards the integrated “One Army” concept. The downstream effects meant reserve-led courses run at weekends were cancelled and personnel were loaded onto regular courses. This was done with the best of intentions so everyone doing the same course would allow for standardisation of training objectives and quality. However, a lack of understanding or recognition of the realities of the reserve soldier meant that the execution was somewhat different. Regular courses run throughout the year, are generally longer than reserve courses in their duration, and run separately to the reserve forecast of events.
What this has led to is a scenario in which a reserve soldier needs to attend a career course, a promotion cadre, a unit camp and assorted training weekends to be promotable. In some cases, this would mean a commitment of 60 days a year, with soldiers using annual leave from their civilian job to conduct reserve training. Not an ideal scenario for many reasons, it also puts pressure on relationships in personal lives. Ironically, one of the only groups able to give this level of commitment would be teachers, students, and those who work in education, but this is impossible because when school holidays run the entire Army is on block leave and no courses are conducted. These circumstances have led to a scenario where the reserve soldiers who can devote this time and promote are invariably the self-employed, the unemployed, or the unemployable.
Though a generalisation, when the reserve structure means the person who promotes is the type of individual who cannot hold down a job and becomes reliant on the Reserves for a source of income, it can breed resentment. This subsequently affects unit cohesion and leads to a degradation in the quality of training, which in turn impacts retention. Previously, one of the hallmarks of the TA was the large number of qualified professionals in its ranks who were able to balance their work and family lives with the demands of being a reservist. This has changed, and the change has been to the detriment of operational effectiveness overall. Crucially, what has caused this is a lack of awareness from all parties of the capabilities of the Army Reserve.
The Overall Problem – a Lack of Awareness
The overarching problem with the management of the AR is a lack of awareness of what it can achieve, what prerequisite skills it has, and how these skills can best be utilised by the British Army.
Many roles in the Army are rank ranged, with courses only available to soldiers of a certain rank. Whilst this is commonly applied in some professions, this becomes problematic when applying the same principle to the Army Reserve, particularly when the reserve soldier in question has not been promoted due to an inability to get time off from their civilian job to attend the military course. This can result in scenarios where the reservist holds a higher qualification than the course gives, or in cases a higher civilian qualification than the instructor conducting the course. As an example, a teacher unable to instruct as a basic training facility until attending the Army’s version of a teaching qualification, despite already qualified for the course given civilian experience.
The Army seems happy to maintain arbitrary barriers to advancement, but in some cases the reserves can bring a different level of talent and expertise from a wide range of professions, trades and skills. These very barriers prevent the Army from exploiting what is in some places a plentiful talent pool. The lack of awareness of preexisting skills is a real weakness, and when this is linked with certain jobs being rank ranged despite the eminent ability of the soldier in question to do them as evidenced by their civilian job it becomes detrimental to morale, cohesion, and motivation to train. This in turn impacts retention further, as does the type of permanent staff allocated to the unit.
The attitude of the wider Army towards the AR still shows signs of the old attitudes of the perceived worthlessness of the reserves. In some Regiments and Corps, a posting to the AR is seen as a positive career move, where the opportunity to develop a large unit and essentially work above one’s rank being desirable for the Regular soldier. In other units, a posting to the Reserve is seen as undesirable as it would remove a soldier from the Battalion or Regimental strength for two years, meaning that you would not be seen by your superiors enough to gain a strong report on your return. The perception in some Regular Regiments and Corps is one that service with the Reserves is inherently inferior, with fewer opportunities for demonstrating leadership, and sets one behind one’s peers.
However, the AR does itself no favours. Ingrained habits and a lack of evolution are an example of this. For example, why does the Annual Training Concentration always need to be “Summer Camp” in September? Why can units not train over the school holidays to open the availability for those of us who work in education? This would also go some way to solving the massive shortage of young officers in the Reserve if young professionals and students were able to train effectively during their free time. The dearth of young officers in the Reserves was identified in FR2020 and it would appear has had no real progress made towards resolving this issue.
There is a lack of professionalism and robustness when it comes to the administration of MATTs in the AR. Each soldier is supposed to pass a set number of tests each year, and yet continually reserve personnel arrive on the regular course that they have been loaded onto woefully underprepared, and in some cases short of a basic standard as mandated by their certificate of efficiency. This is most starkly clear in the administration of MATT 2, or fitness, where anecdotally the number of failures reported by the AR does not appear to match reality.
When year after year people are signed off for their fitness, this not only breeds resentment amongst other soldiers but also brings the wider organisation into disrepute with the Regular Army. In addition, I have never in almost a decade and a half of service ever heard of anyone denied bounty (an annual payment given to soldiers deemed to be “efficient”) for failing any MATT other than fitness, including seeing soldiers being given infinite reshoots on the range in a training manner similar to the infinite monkey theorem. If we are so petrified of losing soldiers that we compromise the integrity of the MATTs process to retain them would we not be better served to recruit the type of people who can pass these with ease in the first place, even if that means a smaller Reserve? In a world where the efficiency of a unit is decided on the number of Certificate of Efficiencies (the certificate issued by the commanding officer to reservists if they pass all their MATTs) as a percentage of its strength that it can obtain, it is easy to see why corruption creeps in.
Both the Regular Army and the Reserves need a renegotiation of their relationship, as both are operating on very different planes of existence. Whilst trying to achieve a common goal, progress will not occur when the only crossover is reserve personnel occasionally attend regular courses.
Case Study – The Education and Training Services (V)
An area worthy of examination as a demonstration of the failures of the system to utilise the skills of reservists is the Education and Training Services (ETS). Usually qualified as teachers, the ETS is an all-officer corps which is a part of the Adjutant Generals’ Corps. The stated mission of the ETS is;
Educational and Training Services (ETS) officers provide learning and development opportunities for serving personnel wherever they are around the world.
The Army’s most valuable resource is its personnel. Education is vital to ensure that officers and soldiers are intellectually able to meet the roles of a modern technological army both in barracks and when deployed on complex and challenging operations.
Recently, a reserve element of the ETS was set up. Whilst this is a fantastic idea, officers are required to first attend Sandhurst. This means attending modules which will all occur during the school term, as well as a final three-week period at Sandhurst, which also does not fall during the school holidays. ETS officers are not even classed as professionally qualified officers in the same way that lawyers and doctors are, which would allow for a shorter course. The Army is removing the potential for it to use the skills of teaching staff within the Army due to the inability of the staff to get the time off from work to attend the courses. There is also the question as to why private and NCOs cannot be in the ETS, as this would allow others to transfer in. This leaves the farcical situation where the military wants the skills that civilian teachers have acquired at great personal time and expense, but is not willing to change their way of working to accommodate their circumstances which exist solely due to the pattern of their civilian job.
This situation encompasses the broad issues that with the “One Army” policy and expectations of reservists, a lack of awareness from both sides, a maintenance of ingrained habits, and a lack of drive or awareness to change the situation.
Conclusion and Recommendations
FR2020 wanted to deliver a “Reserve Force that is an integral element of the Whole Force”. Almost the opposite is occurring. The Regular Army and the Army Reserve are operating towards a roughly delineated goal of “defence”, which many soldiers would struggle to articulate. Their personnel rarely encounter each other, and when they do the results are extremely mixed, colouring the opinion of one about the other for sometimes years to come. These differences and the intra-organisation fighting with a lack of a common goal was elaborated on by Bury (2019). Many decrees which come from the RA to the Reserve have little understanding of how they will be implemented, with the “One Army” concept being just one example.
The most important change would be a return to modular training but run by Regular instructors. Coupled to this would be a removal of the current protection of block leave periods, with this time being utilised for courses which will enable the many service personnel who work in sectors which work term time only to engage with their reservist careers. Finally, a more robust approach to MATTs training and testing needs to be implemented, with a move away from the use of Certificate of Efficiency completion as a marker for the perceived efficacy of a unit. It is only when the AR becomes more professional in its own house that it can expect to be treated as such by our cousins in the Regular Army.