British Army plays hard-to-get on reserves policy!

29 Oct 13. Have those that lead the Army really lost the plot on the Coalition Government plan to cut force numbers from 100,000 to 82,000 by 2020? Do those that run the Army even recognise the necessity to change and that affordability is, whether we like it or not, the order of the day? Why is it that the Army prefers to live in the past and to retain, if it can, vast numbers of Regiments and yet moan that even with existing numbers of personnel it would find it difficult to field a Division?

While the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force appear to be absolutely on-target to achieve the increased number of reservists that was called for by the Coalition Government in SDSR 2010 as the number of press headlines suggesting that proposed cuts to the Army are dangerous and the reserves plan which envisages increasing the number of part time soldiers to 30,000 from the current 15,000 is unworkable I get the distinct impression that the Army is not only attempting to encourage a great many of its elite ‘old soldiers’ to shoot down its reserves plan in flame but that it is also actually encouraging the plan to fail.

The Army has always done politics very well. That is not really surprising and being the largest of the three armed forces by a mile and by having so many of its past force members now either in the House of Commons or House of Lords the Army is in a position of great strength in terms of imparting views across Westminster and Whitehall and to press and media. A number of now retired senior soldiers have been imparting views of late to say how they believed Coalition Government policy in so far as it affected the Army is dangerous and wrong. Yesterday 89 year old Field Marshal Lord Bramall, who as a past chief of defence staff had also commanded the Falklands task force back in 1982, came out of the woodwork to lambaste the MoD plan to double Army reserve force numbers to 30,000 soldiers at the same time as cutting the number of regular soldiers by 20,000 as misguided. Accusing Secretary of State Philip Hammond as “being absolutely obsessed with figures but guilty of bad accounting” Lord Bramall’s argument appeared to be that you should not cut the number of full time soldiers until you have at least trained the number of full time soldiers required.

I do not and never have believed in throwing straws into the wind and today the very fact that Royal Air Force and Royal Navy have between them have embraced the reserves concept leads me to believe that the Army is yet again guilty of playing politics. Certainly in my view the Army should stand accused in the reserves debate of placing substantial obstacles to progress in the way of the plan. With the majority of press and media on its side and with an increasing number of the great and good who just also happen to be old soldiers being wheeled out to reject the ‘reserves’ policy why it is that if the Royal Air Force and Royal Navy are now on target to meet the reserves requirements that the Army is finding it so difficult?

I suggest the answer is because the Army is doing all that it can to hang on to the past. An example of this is that we are constantly hearing the Army say that it must always be able to field a ‘Division’ in a geo-political event that requires our armed forces to be involved- the message from Army headquarters is that they can’t even do this with the current level of personnel.

Parliament is of course littered with former Army soldiers particularly those who are now peers of the realm. They are of course entitled to their views but it has to be said that in Army terms at least they have a tendency to attempt to compare and contrast the defence requirement today with the defence requirement of the past. While I continue to believe that we have gone too far in cutting air and maritime power capability in the UK, I would also admit to having initial misgivings myself about the MoD ‘reserves’ plan – particularly in so far as the policy would have a direct cost impact on industry and that it would mean an inevitable loss of certain hard earned skills of personnel that would be lost to make way for reserves.

When the current policy on intended Army numbers was announced in June 2012 Secretary of State for Defence Philip Hammond suggested that a restructuring of the Army would need a rethink of the way we deliver every aspect of military effect in order to maximise capability at the front line. In future, he said “the army must be thinking innovatively about how combat service support is provided and it must use more systematically skills made available from reserves and from industry contractors”. In saying also that the Army would work more closely with partners to operate logistics in a more cohesive and rational way through the NATO alliance structure, Mr. Hammond also noted “that Britain was looking to others to provide the tail, while Britain concentrated on providing the teeth”.

Structural change for the Army would of necessity need to be introduced at a slower rate than the other two armed forces until ongoing involvement in Afghanistan ends in 2014 and also due to the adjacent decision within SDSR 2010 to bring 11,000 troops currently stationed in Germany back to the UK by 2016 and the remaining 4,500 by 2019. On top of this there has been a requirement to accommodate 17,000 family members and support staff. Logistically this exercise and the investment in new accommodation and infrastructure has been vast but having looked at the work being done it is an exercise that the Defence Infrastructure Organisation (the work of the DIO will be covered by a separate paper in the ‘Defence’ series shortly) charged with much of the work has in my opinion done a remarkable job, particularly since it was only established in 2010.

Back in June 2012 Philip Hammond stressed the importance of the regimental tradition using words if my notes are clear such as “maintaining the ethos, traditions and connections that are part of what makes the British army so effective – particularly, a regimental system and regionally focused recruiting”. But he went on to emphasise that the future regular army of 82,000 will have a very different structure to the current one which then comprised 102,000 members adding that “some units [Regiments] would inevitably be lost or will need to merge. Words of wisdom perhaps but as yet there would appear to have been little in the way of action apart from a small reduction in Army numbers.

The additional 15,000 number of reserve forces now being sought by the Army and that will be added to the existing 15,000 number of existing ‘Territorial’ soldiers to make the 30,000 total required is of course substantially larger than the requirement placed on the Royal Navy (approximately 3,000 reserves) and Royal Air Force (approximately 2,400 reserves). However, the point is surely that in embracing both requirement for change and in the case of the Royal Air Force, by the decision of its senior officers to push forward with the whole force concept, my understanding is that it is only the Army that is finding it difficult to secure the its reserve force requirements.

This morning I note that the Daily Telegraph has placed emphasis on the former Tory defence secretary, Sir Malcolm Rifkind’s warning that plans to cut the size of the regular army by 20,000, while boosting the number of part-time soldiers, may not be deliverable. Mr. Rifkind is reported to have said that “there were serious doubts over plans to plug the gap by doubling the size of the Army Reserves to 30,000, and that mass redundancies make it more difficult for Britain to safeguard global peace and stability”. How interesting that Mr. Rifkind’s comments should come after a ‘leaked document’ warning that plans to restructure the Army are failing because cuts to defence budgets are putting off potential new soldiers. Far more likely in my view is that this is another member of the parliamentary establishment being ‘persuaded’ by those at the top of the Army to throw his political weight into the debate on how big the Army needs to be!

That the Army needs to be seriously restructured should not be in doubt. Retaining force numbers at the current or even intended level in a world that by the Secretary of State’s own admission is unlikely to see British troops engage in a foreign campaign any time soon show just how behind the curve the Army is. I am not for one moment suggesting that I support the sharp cut back in UK defence capability. Far from it as I continue to believe that both air power and maritime capability has been unnecessarily and dangerously paired to the bone. But in terms of Army numbers I find it hard to swallow why we need to permanently retain 82,000 troops. While I admit to having some huge reservations about exchanging full time qualified serving members of the Royal Air Force and Royal Navy and the skills that these people have for reserves I have come round to the belief that while this may not be desirable in all aspects of military personnel capability it is and should be workable. But do I believe that the Army will never be required to field its ageing and expensive fleet of Challenger Tanks again, albeit that these have been reduced in numbers. I don’t see the need to retain these at all, particularly as it will soon have the superb capability of a Warrior upgrade and that it still has substantially high levels of other ground force capability.

It is also increasingly clear that the longer term plan that might evolve beyond Future Force 2020 and that may begin to emerge in SDSR 2015 is that there will in the future be an increasing number of aspects and areas of defence capability that Britain will no longer engage. The bottom line is that I like it less than some of you, particularly when it hits air and maritime power. But when it comes to retaining vast numbers of troops and failing to accept and adopt that the world really has changed, and that as a nation we no longer require to retain the vast number of troops that the Army is seeking to hold on to, I do find the Army’s inability to adapt to the modern world very difficult to understand.

Howard Wheeldon, FRAeS
Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd.
M: 07710 779785

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