UK Defence (252) – Of Retention, Undermanning, Gaps and Army Reserves Targets.

Recently published figures from the MOD have, according to press reports, shown that over the past year 7,260 trained military personnel have resigned from all three service branches. The figures also show that, at 140,570, the declared minimum number of trained military personnel required by the MOD is short by 6,000. Voluntary outflow figures confirm that between April 2015 and January 2016 the Army lost 3,950, the Royal Navy lost 1,380 and that the Royal Air Force lost 1,930 personnel. Overall it appears that one in four military personnel across all three of our armed services walked away before completing their training.

That so many of members of our armed forces are choosing to leave early is due to a combination of factors. Specific family reasons and normal retirements apart, these include concerns on remuneration, pension changes, lack of career prospects, concerns on welfare, housing and family support, acute shortages in specialist trade areas such as engineering and technicians and that obviously places a more intense pressure and burden on those that remain to keep up with the workload.

All these factors are reasons why too many members of our military personnel have chosen to vote with their feet and depart the military and they are reason why we must all be concerned. The problem is alarming to say the least and it is something that the Government and specifically the MOD must address as a matter of priority. If this requires additional funding from the Government to secure better levels of retention then as far as I am concerned these must now be found without damaging the already announced intention to increase, enhance and upgrade the UK’s overall level of military capability.  

That morale is low across various sections of our armed forces can hardly be denied and perhaps nowhere does this stand out more than within specialist trade branches that provide support to ensure that front line forces have sufficient capability to deploy. I would also have to say that retention and concerns over manning, both current and future, are now the priority concern of senior military personnel and with the rising number of unmanned positions across various trade branches of the military rising at an alarming rate it is clear that the MOD needs to act and come up with a better solution to retain personnel. Training ability across many branches of the military is clearly stretched and with qualified trainers from all branches of the military eagerly sought by private sector competition who are able to pay more the situation can only get worse.

It is well known that the Royal Navy has been so short of engineers that it has borrowed a large number of engineering technicians from the US Coast Guard. Whilst this is a great idea for the shorter term it is clearly not a sustainable solution to the wider problem. Cut backs in training instigated as a direct result of SDSR 2010 may be blamed for part of the problem and if we are to resolve the situation, retain and grow the number of qualified instructors that we need without losing them as soon as they themselves are qualified there needs to be a rethink on policy, commitment requirement, remuneration and whatever else is required to ensure we retain sufficient numbers of qualified personnel.          

SDSR 2010 led to a serious change in reserves policy too and while this has to a large extent worked well for the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force it is arguably one that is not yet working for the Army.

With the Army Reserves recruitment target believed to be short of at least 10,000 personnel and worse, that there is a strong probability that a proportion of Reserves who have signed up over the past two years and that are included in the most recent MOD figures having already resigned concern that the MOD may inadvertently be double counting is cause for concern.

Despite reassuring words from the Secretary of State for Defence and others that Reservist targets will be met most commentators on defence agree that the Army will probably struggle to have anywhere near the targeted number of 30,000 fully trained reserve soldiers working alongside full-time soldier equivalents by 2020.

Reservists are and should be an important part of defence but they should not be seen as being an answer to the problems already outlined in terms of retention or filling gaps in areas were manning shortage is very prevalent. Despite my rarely touching on specific Army related matters in these defence paper such is the concern over the MOD plan to recruit and train sufficient numbers of Army reservists in order to compliment a reduced number of full time soldiers since SDSR 2010 it would be wrong that I avoid this now very serious issue.  

To set the scene one needs to go back to SDSR 2010, a document that was published in November of that year. This defence white paper set out an intention by the MOD to cut the number of full time soldiers to 82,000 and to supplement these with a sizable increase in the number of trained Reserves. In theory and if well executed this might well have been a plan that could have worked although right from the start it had many critics who not only questioned the merits of cutting the number of full time Army personnel but also whether increasing the number of Army Reserves to 30,000 was either possible or sustainable.

Following a period of consultation with all parties involved including the private sector on the 3rd July 2013 the Government set out details of a plan to sustain and grow the UK Reserve Forces. The so-called new relationship laid out within the Government white paper which was entitled ‘Reserves in the Future Force 2020’ was seen by HMG as being a significant step forward in the plan to create a new, fully integrated Reserve Force in all three sections of the military. The Reserve Force would, according to the white paper, contain well-trained personnel who would not only be well-equipped but, according to the proposition, well-funded.

The raft of measures revealed by HMG were intended to grow the numbers of Reserves across all sections of the military, including the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force, to around 35,000 personnel in total. The intention was also to provide crucial support and various additional incentives to reservists, their families and their employers. Indeed, the promise made by then Secretary of State for Defence, Mr. Philip Hammond was for better benefits to be paid to all those that signed up and that they would receive greater job security and more support for themselves, their families and the ultimate private sector employer who would of course be directly impacted perhaps more than ever before.

Specifically in relation to the Army, HMG’s ‘Reserves Plan’ proposed that the [then] Territorial Army would change its name to be called the Army Reserve. This was being done in order to, so the report said, better reflect the enhanced role and the full integration of Reserves into the ‘whole force’ concept. The report also confirmed that £80 million would be invested in the Army Reserve estate to accommodate the larger number (30,000) of Reserves that were now being targeted to compliment full-time soldiers.

In terms of the ‘offer’ the ‘Reserves in the Future Force 2020’ white paper told us that measures proposed included the introduction of paid annual leave when training as well as when deployed on missions and operations, generous Armed Forces pension entitlements, that Reserves would be better training and have similar access to the same equipment used by their full-time ‘regular’ counterparts. Reserves would also be able to access key defence health services when in training and on deployed operations together with the benefit of having transferable skills and academic qualifications. The Army Reserve training commitment was to be around 40 days per year, up from the then average of 35 days per annum, and there would also be legislation to ensure access to employment tribunals in unfair dismissal cases against reservists, without a qualifying employment period.   

Employers who would be required to release employees to take on the reserves role would be paid £500 per month, per reservist. Here would be a financial award paid to small and medium enterprises on top of the allowances and that I believe had been already available when reservist employees had been deployed, more notice given to reservists so that employers were better able to plan for the absences of their reservist employees, greater recognition for leading supportive employers and a national relationship management scheme to strengthen relationships with larger employers.

The then Chief of the General Staff, General Sir Peter Wall, said at the time that “the Reserves white paper had given the Army important clarity on how it would generate an integrated Army of Regulars and Reserves. The Army Reserve will be more highly trained, better equipped and better paid. It has a key role to play in our nation’s security and it will offer its soldiers plenty of challenge and adventure”.

So what went wrong or was it simply that the plan was asking far too much and that as a supposed strategy, it could never work? A combination of both I would suggest but it was made worse by a lack of understanding of the culture that exists in the Army and of how the reservist issue would work in practice. By this I mean how well such a dramatic change in policy would go down with full-time soldiers, whether they would see this as being a workable and sustainable proposition for both the Reserves personnel who would be directly involved and also their private sector employers.

One may be entitled to suggest here that although the MOD has repeatedly said that they will meet the Reserves personnel numbers targeted for 2020 that the failure to so far achieve anywhere near the number that will be required makes this look increasingly like an impossible target. It is also one that has been made all the more difficult by frequently heard suggestions that full-time soldiers charged with training volunteers have a tendency to look down on their reservist charges, treating them as being inferior and showing them very little if any respect. Accepting the need to discipline in all forms of military training is one thing, being despised is quite another. 

Fitness is also a problem for reservists and with limited time available together with a full-time job to hold down in the private sector for most of the time keeping to the standard of fitness required by the Army is not easy. Indeed, there have been unconfirmed reports that over 50% of reservists have failed Army medicals.

Another problem that has come to light is the time required by reservists to travel to the required training camp. The problem which has meant that many have chosen to absent themselves from training or have been forced to do so is particularly noticeable in respect of weekend training camps. The problem is that the MOD has not built sufficient time in the programme for travelling to training locations which may be hundreds of miles away. This can often mean that some reservists are forced to pull out because they are unable or unwilling to take even more time off from their main employment. 

None of this is to suggest that private sector employers have been anything other than very supportive of those employees that wish to sign up as reserves. Given that this comes at a great cost to employers and that the Government has only offered additional support to small and medium sized companies that support staff joining reserves industry should be thanked for the effort it has made. Industry has always supported the need to support reservists and it is a tradition that, particularly with the Army, goes back a very long way.

But of all the problems in respect of reservists that stands out to me as being a problem the one that impacts most is that of reservists being treated by both the MOD and sometimes, by their full-time soldier equivalents, as being inferior soldiers. While it is to a degree understandable that full-time soldiers should take a view that they, having received years of specific military training and maybe having deployed in theatre several times in their career, have experience that reserves may never have, they easily ignore the fact that that reservists bring with them a multitude of wider skills that are often missing in branches of the Army.

From an MOD perspective another frequently heard claim is that full-time soldiers get promoted faster than reservists. Whether or not the last point is true or not treating reservists as inferior is clearly unacceptable. Reserves not only bring additional skills and different forms of experience into a Force but they can also deliver new ways of thinking if allowed to present their views.         

Last year the Major Projects Authority (MPS), a body that is responsible for analysing and reporting annually on all major military projects downgraded the Army reserves plan to what it called “unachievable” in respect of what it believed would be the Army’s ability to meet the reserves recruitment numbers as set by the Government. If it was needed, the MPA’s warning was a shot across the bows that the attempt to reduce costs by employing and training greater numbers of Reserves was a strategy that needed to be seriously rethought.

Few I suspect would argue that having a large compliment of trained reserve soldiers ready to assist and to deploy alongside full-time soldiers is anything other than sensible. What never stacked up though in the case of the Army was the proposed balance of having a reduced 82,000 number of full-time soldiers and a far larger compliment of 30,000 fully trained reservists. The reservist issue has little to do with the Army’s slow pace of modernisation, its acceptance of the need to change and to make itself more affordable it is equally about a failure to make an enticing enough offer to would-be reservists together with a failure to understand that there is a burden on industry who are required to release their employees for maybe several weeks a year so that they can undertake the training and potentially deploy that needs to be better understood.

That the balance between the proposed number of full-time soldiers – 82,000 and those proposed by the Government for reserves – 30,000 are arguably out of quilter with what many believe the Army requires is not an argument I propose to pursue here although it is one that probably has merit. However, despite some of its own senior officers publically questioning whether the Army needs 82,000 full-time soldiers today the truth is that, along with both the Royal Air Force and Royal Navy, retention of existing people is one of the most serious issues facing the military today. The Army is, I am told, currently well below its target of having 82,000 full-time soldiers and the military as a whole is, mainly because of the ‘offer’ struggling to retain trained people. In a competitive world there are plenty in the private sector both at home and abroad ready and willing to attract trained engineers and technicians not to mention front line personnel with offers that the MOD is unable or unwilling to match.

Back to the question of Army reservists and I understand that such is the level of dissatisfaction amongst those that had previously signed up to join the reserves that many have already left. Indeed, we may question here that within the numbers of reserves that have signed up and that are disclosed by the MOD that there may be a rather too large element of double counting in these figures meaning that rather too many of those included may have already left. 

Retention of those that have signed up to join the Army reserves is as far as I can see as serious a problem as signing new members up. Industry is doing its best to allow those of its staff who wish to sign up to do so and to have sufficient time off to accommodate required training. But while those that sign up know that their employers are behind them they are bound to worry whether by doing so might impact on the likelihood of promotion. Because of this and in some cases, the way that they have been treated by their full-time master many have already chosen to leave. 

Figures for 2015/16 have not yet been made available but those for 2014/15 show that just 5,000 people joined the Army Reserve during the year. Admittedly that was better than the mere 3,000 that signed up in 2013/14 but neither of these figures includes those that had by the end of the year in question already left.  

Do those in the military that ask volunteers to take periods off work understand or even care that those same volunteers also have commitments to their employers? Do they understand or care that employers are making a massive commitment to the military in allowing their staff to volunteer and take periods off work? Do senior military officers charged with increasing numbers of Army reserves really understand the level of discontent amongst some full time soldiers that reservists are being employed to do some of their jobs and how some reservists are treated? Have they taken the trouble to even notice how some reservists are being treated?

These are just a few of the issues raised in several conversations that I have been involved in over recent weeks and I have to say that some of the things that I have heard are very worrying. Just as the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force have been asked to do on a smaller scale the Army has been charged over the past three or four years to spearhead a campaign to increase the number of reservists that can act in compliment to full time serving soldiers. It’s been a tough job so far and one that in terms of target numbers of volunteers has fallen way below MOD hopes and expectations.

Army 2020 which was launched in 2010/11 envisaged recruiting 30,000 volunteer reservists to work with a planned regular force of 82,000 full time soldiers. Poor retention and disappointment over the pay and pensions offer has led to many full time serving soldiers to vote with their feet and leave. And with industry adopting a more cautious attitude to losing staff who might wish to volunteer for periods of a few weeks serving and training with full time soldiers in part due to the additional cost burden for them the incentive to let people go has been less.

None of this has been helped by the way that the Army has attempted to recruit volunteers often using dull, dingy, worn out facilities in infrastructure that has seen little investment for decades. Two years ago I was shown one such facility in Hampshire that was in effect a terrapin hut located in the car park area of a run-down industrial estate. There was absolutely nothing that would have attracted a would-be volunteer reservist to sign up and nothing to show what the Army was about and what it did. Another facility that I looked at in South London had no weapons, vehicles or kit to show a would-be volunteer although I confess that it had an excellent boxing ring and facilities to match run and paid for by other volunteers.

Although reservists can and do deploy perhaps the most important need to employ them is for the specialist knowledge and experience of other important requirements that they can bring. People with specialist knowledge of cyber security, technical and technology skills are all examples of urgent requirement and areas in which the Army is short of experienced personnel. To do this my understanding is that the army have set out to work more closely with industry.

There can be little doubt that if the Army is to achieve 60% of its reserves target by 2020 it will need to work a lot harder to convince would-be reservists of the merits of joining up. Culture will need to change it within the Army itself and also within the MOD meaning that stereotypical notions of reserves being inferior to full-time soldiers and of it being acceptable to treat them as second rate will need to be binned. Equal opportunities are required and the need for those who might sign up to see vision and opportunity for so doing will need to be enhanced by senior Army personnel. Everything is possible but it requires strong leadership, will and determination to succeed. 

CHW (London – 16th May 2016)

Howard Wheeldon FRAeS

hwheeldon@wheeldonstrategic.com

Tel: 07710-779785

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