UK Defence (38) – Reserves Project Faces Critical Assessment

10 June 2014 – Few either within or close to the military will be that surprised to learn that the head of the Major Projects Authority, John Manzoni, has formally written to both the Cabinet Office and the Treasury informing them that the Future Reserves 2020 plan is now in the ‘at risk’ category.

Future Reserves 2020 was a plan initially launched as a consultation paper by Secretary of State for Defence, Philip Hammond, in November 2012. It was built around an intention to stabilise and reverse the decline in Reserve Forces manning and increase the trained strengths to 3,100 for the Maritime Reserves, 1,800 for the Royal Auxiliary Air Force and 30,000 for the Army. For the Army the intention was that ‘Reservists’ would make up for the projected 20% cut in full-time equivalent posts by 2018.

No matter whether the ‘Reserves’ plan was viable, cost-effective and whether it might have been based on well thought out defence strategy, it is clear now that it was pushed through with far too little consideration of the potential danger of failure. The reality is that almost two years since the original ‘Reserves’ plan was launched Army reserve numbers, currently believed to be 19,000 personnel, have barely moved. Indeed, in the twelve month period to April 2014 we are told that the net additional number of reserves recruited during that period was just 170 operatives.

Given the above numbers are correct it is rather surprising that the MOD should continue to suggest that the ‘Reserves’ plan is on track. I also note that there is an attempt in some quarters to pass blame for failing to meet initial targets set on to the outsourcing contractor Capita. But while I could be persuaded to believe that the decision to outsource may not have been in the absolute best interests of the overall plan it would in my view be wrong to blame failings on the contractor alone. Part of the problem lies in the belief amongst the outside world and of those that might be tempted to volunteer, that affordability and pressure to cut costs has overridden requisite defence strategy and capability needs. Certainly potential reservists do not like the thought that they are replacing full-time soldiers and there is an underlying perception that this is another attempt to do defence on the cheap.

It is certainly clear that widespread redundancies has left a sour taste in the mouth of would-be reservists and it is hardly surprising that this would impact the number of potential reserves likely to volunteer. Moreover it probably has also had some impact on the obligatory ongoing recruitment of full time soldiers. Discontent amongst serving members of the military is certainly high and when that occurs it tends to be spread across the whole defence community.

Whilst I have continually questioned the huge capability losses exposed within SDSR 2010 as being hugely damaging in relation to maritime and air power; I have never once questioned that taking the Army down to 82,000 serving personnel from a previous 102,000 was anything other than the correct strategy to adopt. I continue to believe that the Army must be made more effective and that clinging on to tradition is now no longer either desirable or affordable. If we were to pull troops out of Germany as intended and bring home our serving personnel from Afghanistan it always seemed to me perfectly sensible that the Army should bear the brunt of planned cuts. Some will no doubt disagree with such a view but with technology playing an increasingly significant role in contemporary conflict in comparison to troops on the ground, such an argument is relevant.

The Reserves plan aimed to give reserve forces more clearly defined, relevant and formal roles in support of specific security and operational tasks performed by sub-units and units. Another purpose aimed at offering the right mix of what it called interesting and challenging activities, appropriate recognition and reward and personal satisfaction to attract individuals to and retain them in the Reserve Forces.  To achieve this, the plan was designed to exploit innovative partnerships between Defence, Education and Industry to optimise the sharing and development of human talent. Over ten years a total £1.8bn would be invested in the Reserves to increase their strength and effectiveness.

Arguably the planned ‘Reserve’ force targets set for the Royal Air Force and Royal Navy were and have been just about manageable meaning that, although frustrating in detail, they have not been considered onerous. To a greater or lesser extent targets set for both the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force have already been met or are considered likely to be. Nevertheless, it remains the case that forced cuts to full time operatives have left the Royal Air Force under considerable pressure to fill many specialist tasks whilst at the same time the Royal Navy, partly because it has put so much of its effort into the creation of the future carrier force, is suffering from personnel capability shortage in some areas.

Although unconnected with the ‘Reserves’ plan it is also necessary to mention that the lack of an incentive scheme, the planned alterations to the existing pension scheme, increasing levels of competition from the private sector particularly in relation to those employed within the air power component, together with a more general feeling of malaise that inevitably leads a certain element of serving officers to believe the private sector offers considerable more vision than can be found within the military today, has meant that the Royal Air Force has been losing far too many highly experienced QFI’s (Qualified Flying Instructors) plus also those in other leadership tasks at a far too rapid rate.

Moving back to the Reserves issue it was clear from the start that the proposed changes would impact most significantly on the Army. The integral role that the Reserves are intended to play within the Army also meant that historic title ‘Territorial Army’ would be abandoned to be replaced by Army Reserve as it was considered that it no longer reflected the role that the Reserves would play in future. For the Royal Air Force and Royal Navy no such change was proposed as it was felt that they would continue broadly as they have done in the past, supporting contingent and enduring operations, albeit at a greater strength in terms of active Reserve numbers available and that they would deliver a far wider range of capability.

The Reserves plan set out to change the relationship between the military and employers through the introduction of an Employers charter that would set out the commitment on behalf of the employer to support reservists, to recognise the benefit to the employer of employing reservists, and setting the tone for employer Human resources policy. For the Reservist themselves, the proposition was based on ‘Defence will offer the challenge and reward which attracts people to volunteer and undertake to train and support them throughout their Service, including when mobilising and recuperating’.

Concern amongst backbench Tory MP’s, not only that the Reserves plan as it currently stands makes little sense and that defence cuts have already gone far too far, does now appear to be rife. Later this week the National Audit Office (NAO) is also expected to bring more discouraging news on the Reserves Plan with yet another round of severe criticism. Clearly, just as there needs to be a clear rethink over the relevancy of overall maritime and air power capability weakness that was ‘planned’ as part of SDSR 2010, so too the Reserves plan needs to be radically rethought. This time one may hope with far greater transparency and debate with all those concerned including industry which is required to foot a large part of the bill.


As we enter a new phase in defence in the lead up to the planned SDSR 2015 we must be more aware that defence cannot be built on affordability issues alone. A true understanding of future security policy needs and importantly, deciding where and what Britain wants to be in the world must now be defined. Reserves make up an extremely important element of national defence capability and we know the value that they bring to such a key role. The basic concept of what was planned in terms of the future reserves plan may well be fine but it has failed because of perception and the manner in which it has been sold and understood. We cannot do defence on the cheap and we must decide now what it is that we want to do. There are many issues of relevance that I will discuss in the coming months be this our role within NATO, our membership of the Security Council, maintaining a nuclear deterrence, maritime and air power requirements, the potential impacts of the Scottish referendum on defence and so on. But whatever the view on these areas might be, the future must also be about a well-defined defence and security strategy and one that places equipment capability, trained personnel requirement and capacity needs at the top of the agenda.

CHW (London) 10th June 2014

Howard Wheeldon FRAeS

Tel: 07710 779785

Comments are closed.