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Reserves – what are they good for?

Executive summary

Successive independent reviews of Reserve Forces have sought to recommend an increase in capacity and adopt a more flexible approach to harnessing a wealth of talent that is vital if Defence is looking to adapt in the face of rapidly changing security challenges and remain competitive.  However, demand for reserves remains poorly defined, and there are significant supply issues through perpetual lack of investment in recruiting.

There is no doubt we need access to modern and relevant skills not routinely held by those in regular service, but a morass of single service policies and processes based on legacy regular models seriously inhibits our ability to employ reserves in an agile manner.  There also needs to be a greater appreciation that whilst reserves are an intrinsic part of the Whole Force, this does not mean they are synonymous to their regular counterparts; civilian employers and family circumstances perhaps place greater emphasis on the value of portfolio career opportunities within the reserves.

Finally, normalising remote and flexible working practices and embracing greater diversity of the workforce will help retain vital talent through reserve service when otherwise the only option might be to leave altogether.

Introduction

I first contemplated writing an article about the employment of Reserves not long after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in early 2022.  The main thrust of my argument would be set against recommendations laid out in the Reserve Forces Review 2030 (RF30), an independent review chaired by The Rt Hon Lord Lancaster.  RF30’s predecessor, the Future Reserves 2020 Review (FR20), focussed primarily on numerical growth and as we shall see later, has been ultimately unsuccessful in achieving the desired level of ambition.  Conversely, RF30 is more focussed on people and skills, unlocking reserves’ potential to meaningfully contribute to defence capability, developing stronger networks between Defence, industry, government, and wider society. 

The strategic context in which Defence has been operating over the past few years has been incredibly dynamic, both domestically and internationally, arguably culminating most recently with Russia’s ‘partial’ mobilisation of reserves to bolster the floundering military campaign in Ukraine.  Given the poor state of morale amongst Russia’s regular forces, it is hard to imagine how press-ganging an unsuitable cohort of unwilling volunteers will provide anything like a credible fighting force who can add any tangible value on the battlefield; in this instance quantity is most unlikely to be a quality of its own. 

As far as I can ascertain, the only thing in Russia’s favour here in terms of a mass mobilisation of reserves, is that at least it doesn’t rely on undertaking a tortuous JPA process to complete.1  I digress. Slightly.

Reserves – what’s in a name?

At this point it is probably worthwhile unpicking some often confused nomenclature around what we mean by the term ‘Reserve’.  The Oxford dictionary definition refers to the verb meaning retain for future use; and noun being a body of troops withheld from action to reinforce or protect others, or additional to the regular forces and available in an emergency.  This is the ‘in emergency break glass’ cohort (our recent Russian cadre of voluntolds).  In RF30 parlance, this is the ‘Strategic Reserve’; an assured force of previously trained predominantly ex-regular service personnel held at low readiness, but who can add further depth as a contingent capability and wider access to expertise in time of crisis or national emergency. 

Unfortunately, there is a distinct lack of a coherent future vision for the Strategic Reserve.  It is fair to say we are not Finland, facing a real or even perceived existential threat directly on our border.  Whilst broadly supportive of the military, and the Reserves place within that construct, British society lacks the same level of cultural commitment and understanding of an individual citizen’s responsibility towards the notion of Total Defence. 

COVID-19, fuel strikes, flooding, pasta and toilet roll shortages all absolutely highlight a need for the military to support the delivery of national resilience in close co-operation between central government, other government departments, local governing bodies, the private sector and the wider population.  Reserves are incredibly well-placed to provide specialist expertise and bridge the cultural civilian and military divide in response to national crises, but current structures and an absence of an innovative vision to rapidly generate mass at a time and place of need prohibits effective use of an existing resource.

Three Services – three different views

Each Front-Line Command uses Reserves in markedly different ways, with varying levels of ambition; these differences constrain a Defence-wide narrative although this is a recognised issue and being addressed through emerging conceptual work.  For its part, Russian aggression in Ukraine has put renewed focus on Future Soldier, the ambitious transformation of the British Army.  The Chief of the General Staff’s response to Russian aggression is through Operation MOBILISE (rather clumsily named in the context of Reserve service), necessitating a revisiting of readiness states with increasing NATO demands, acceleration of modernisation programmes, and inevitably structural changes.  Consequently, where previously Army Reserve activity was leaning towards primacy over homeland resilience, this is now not necessarily the case as the Army attempts to redefine what Future Soldier needs to deliver. 

Whilst there will always be a requirement for some form of contingent capability, largely resting with the Army to fulfil by dint of numerical superiority, increasingly all three Services, along with Strategic Command are developing auxiliary (full and part-time) workforces that are fully integrated with their regular counterparts.  In RF30 terms, these are ‘Active Reserves’, although one might argue they are not Reserves in the traditional sense at all. 

These reservists commit to preparing for and delivering operational outputs (including traditional war-fighting capability, sub-threshold and homeland protect tasks) and operating in support of routine Defence activity; a day-to-day demonstration of a flexible Whole Force.  The main thrust of this article is aimed towards how we should improve access to those reserves with deep specialist skills or previous regular experience in order to contribute to routine operational outputs on a daily basis, rather than attempting to address issues with the contingent warfighting capability held within the strategic reserve.

Army Air Corps Reserves training with Wildcat helicopter
Army Air Corps Reserves training with Wildcat helicopter (SSgt Si Longworth, AAC, Defence Imagery)

Chasing numbers and missing targets

The trained strength targets for the reserve of the three Services were outlined in FR20 (Royal Navy 3100; Army 30,100; Royal Air Force 1860).  Although there has been no official announcement of reductions to these figures, momentum following early gains has been lost with declining numbers being recruited and retained across the board.  Consequently, despite reduced targets driven by financial pressures all three Services are struggling to recruit sufficiently to meet these targets, let alone achieve aspirational growth, reflective of a lack of investment and inconsistent focus.  This is most acutely felt in the Army, who are around 4000 reserves understrength, questioning Defence’s ability to use reserves to provide meaningful additional capacity and squeezing the pool from which to access modern and relevant skills that are required to optimise for the future as envisaged by RF30.

To meet the challenges articulated in the Integrated Review (and its current refresh), Defence needs ready access to deep specialists, either through previous regular service or more frequently drawing on civilian skills.  Reserves provide expertise in such areas as digital & cyber, information operations, media, strategic communications, crime & law enforcement, network analysis, threat finance, Weapons of Mass Destruction, and many others.

Bureaucracy, bureaucracy, bureaucracy

However, selection and appointment policies associated with tapping into these pools of talent are overly bureaucratic and not remotely fit for purpose for reserves.  The Army’s 216-page Boarding Manual reflects a process that would be familiar to Wellington.  Each Service seeks to emulate a system that mirrors that of regular counterparts, which seems sensible in principle.  However, it entirely overlooks the fact that regulars are already in fixed employment when the next stage of their career is being determined. 

Conversely, reserves may well be in other forms of civilian employment, self-employed, unemployed, or just contemplating a return to some form of paid service; a 6-9 month recruitment process is neither practicable or desirable.  For example, to assign a major into a role for as little as 3-4 days a month may still require being appointed through the Army’s Number 5 Board that sits once a quarter.  Appointing a Royal Navy Captain for a similar duration requires approval from the First Sea Lord! As articulated in a recent Thin Pinstriped Line blog, the Royal Navy is still trying to run a career model that dates to the 19th century well into the 21st century.

The next generation want portfolio careers, flexible employment and may want to ‘dip in and out’ of their career as the demands of life change.  Not wanting to be too disparaging of rigorous single Service processes borne out of a long history and bad behaviours, they are ironically risk-averse, mirroring that of Victorian systems designed around the regular cohort and lack the agility required to appoint volunteer reservists into roles in a timely manner.

Eggs and egg cups

One of the great benefits of reserve service is that the military career often plays second, or third fiddle to family and civilian career considerations; a reservist has much greater flexibility in the choice of job role, location and terms and conditions of service; a luxury not afforded to most regular personnel.  Consequently, career management is often less of a consideration.  Due to changing circumstances in the work-life balance, there is likely to be greater variation in the overall career profile of a reservist which could present valuable opportunities for portfolio careers.  However, over time, with a paucity of joint guidance each service has applied legislation differently; there is a distinct lack of harmonisation between single-service terms and conditions of service, resulting in a complex web of engagement types that acts as a deterrent to gaining access to reserve talent. 

There needs to be an acknowledgement that reserves are not simply part-time regulars; In many respects we try and treat the two cohorts in the same manner, particularly when it comes to establishing positions (creating the eggcups) and recruiting into service (generating the eggs).  However, once in service, we treat each cohort entirely differently.  Many of the reserve terms and conditions of service preclude or limit entitlement to such luxuries as accommodation, travel reimbursement, and access to medical facilities. 

The Service Chiefs were recently rubbing their hands in glee at the prospect of spending the (unlikely) windfall associated with the increase in Defence spending. I would respectfully suggest that a priority would be to address the many wrongs experienced on a daily basis by regulars and reserves alike: namely, addressing immediate concerns such as over-stretch due to significant gapping, poor accommodation and a deterioration in food standards. 

Turning conventional wisdom on its head

My broader point is that conventional wisdom needs to be turned on its head if we want to attract and retain talent; be more agile in the way we recruit reserves and avoid treating like second class citizens by assuring that Conditions of Service are fair.  This requires robust top-down direction, given that the frozen middle much prefers to protect the status quo with not just a reluctance to embrace change, but are often positively hostile towards the notion.

As someone who left regular service to become the primary caregiver in a dual-serving household, I have experienced first-hand the flexibility that reserve service can bring although I am acutely aware that a significant cohort of expertise feels constrained in reaching its full potential.  According to the Atherton Report, 56% of married servicewomen are in a service couple, compared to 5% of married servicemen and it is most often the woman in a dual-serving couple who gives up her military career to support a family.  Whilst appropriately aspirational, a substantial increase in the proportion of women in service may result in unforeseen second order consequences as more gaps in the workplace are likely to be encountered when family circumstances change. 

Nevertheless, changing attitudes to working from home, flexible working arrangements and a greater provision of wrap-around childcare should all become normalised behaviours to help incentivise primary caregivers to return to work in a time and place that is conducive to family life and to the benefit of Defence.  Rather than being considered a threat, this should be seen as an opportunity for retaining talent through both regular and reserve service, but it does need to be understood and planned for.  This may also go some way to address the under-representation of female leaders in the reserves.

Conclusion

Successive independent reviews of Reserve Forces have sought to recommend an increase in capacity and adopt a more flexible approach to harnessing a wealth of talent that is vital if Defence is looking to adapt in the face of rapidly changing security challenges and remain competitive.  However, demand for reserves remains poorly defined, and there are significant supply issues through perpetual lack of investment in recruiting.  There is no doubt we need access to modern and relevant skills not routinely held by those in regular service, but a morass of single service policies and processes based on legacy regular models seriously inhibits our ability to employ reserves in an agile manner. 

There also needs to be a greater appreciation that whilst reserves are an intrinsic part of the Whole Force, this does not mean they are synonymous to their regular counterparts; civilian employers and family circumstances perhaps place greater emphasis on the value of portfolio career opportunities within the reserves.  Furthermore, normalising remote and flexible working practices and embracing greater diversity of the workforce will help retain vital talent through reserve service when otherwise the only option might be to leave altogether. 

I end with two questions that need to be considered: What does Defence want from its reserves, and what do reserves want from Defence?  In my view, the answer to the first question has not been articulated well enough, and the second question is not being sufficiently met.

Rich

Rich spent over two decades as a regular RAF Officer, working extensively with reserves on operations and in a variety of single Service Headquarters. On leaving regular service, he joined the Royal Auxiliary Air Force and is currently a reservist within UK Strategic Command.

Footnotes

  1. Joint Personnel Administration (JPA) is the intranet-based personnel administration system used by the British Armed Forces since 2006.

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