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Army Reserves Centre

Reservists are Key to Deterrence in Grey Zone Conflict – Businesses Must Be Part of the Effort

Gerhard Wheeler
Commentary, 30 January 2020
Armed Forces, Civil–Military Relations, UK, Domestic Security, UK Defence
European states are modernising their reserve forces to counter emerging threats and companies will play a key role in this civil-military effort.

Defence ministers across Europe, alarmed by Russia’s aggression in Crimea and Ukraine, are urgently trying to rebuild and repurpose their part-time reserve forces. The post-Soviet countries are in the vanguard; Poland, for example, is forming a new Territorial Defence Force comprising 48,000 soldiers. Countries with established reserves are also following close behind; Germany intends to expand its reserve headcount from 15,000 to 100,000. The case for this is compelling. Modern reservists are not only a deterrent against overt military incursions; they are also a defence against hybrid warfare tactics such as cyber-attacks and disinformation campaigns. Additionally, reservists can support emergency services by responding to natural disasters and step in to alleviate disruptions in critical services and supplies. But for defence ministries to succeed in their attempts to strengthen the Europe’s resilience they must convince the corporate world to rally behind them.

 A Hard Commercial Sell

Corporate boards have far less understanding of the needs and abilities of reservists since mass conscription ended in most continental countries following the fall of the Berlin Wall. Even when the senior corporate leadership declares its support, hard-pressed middle managers can be less sympathetic when reservists ask to be released for training camps or mobilisation. Modern work patterns and the prevalence of working couple households can make it harder for reservists to attend training evenings and weekends. For some reservists, their commitment can up-end an already precarious work-life balance. Companies need to be persuaded to reset this balance if they want the countries they operate in to remain resilient to future threats, and therefore stable.

An Invaluable Asset

As ‘grey zone’ conflict becomes the norm, reservists offer skills that are difficult to grow and maintain in professional armed forces. Reservist cyber specialists who in their day jobs battle criminal hackers are often more digitally savvy than their full-time military counterparts. Some defence forces are even changing their standards for cyber combatants so they can attract the best tech talent, accepting that keyboard warriors may not need to be as physically fit, or parade smart, as field troops.

In provincial areas, reservists’ local knowledge can be invaluable. During a recent NATO exercise, US Marine units flown into central Norway were paired up with small teams from the Norwegian Home Guard; the mix of American high-tech capability and native intelligence proved a winning combination against the opposing exercise force. Moreover, when reacting to damage from freak weather events, reservists that live and work within their civilian communities can be faster to respond, better informed and more empathetic than their garrison-based regular colleagues.

Reservists can draw on the links and understanding they have developed in their civilian roles. Denmark has recently assigned its Home Guard to identify vulnerabilities in its critical national infrastructure. As many Danish reservists already work for vital services like railways, communication providers and power companies, they are starting to produce cross-cutting insights that civil servants find much harder to identify.  

Their low operating costs make reservists particularly attractive to cash-strapped European defence forces. They cost far less than their full-time professional counterparts to train and maintain. Furthermore, veterans re-employed as reservists provide a better return on investment.

Current Arrangements

To encourage civilian employers to support reservists a number of approaches are already in place. Most countries offer some form of compensation to the civilian employers of the reservists they call up; Germany stands out as the most generous, providing full salary compensation, but it is an outlier.

Employer engagement techniques also work. The UK has established a Defence Relationship Management organisation that encourages employers to sign an Armed Forces Covenant, a voluntary pledge outlining how businesses intend to support reservists, regular personnel, and veterans; over 4,000 companies have already signed and their ranks are swelling fast. The UK also runs an employer recognition scheme: awarding bronze, silver and gold awards to firms that go beyond the call of duty to support their armed forces; this year, 100 companies, including Amazon, Schroeders and Rolls-Royce, received the prestigious Gold Award. Corporate HR policies are becoming more reserve-friendly and commercial recruitment costs are being cut by marking out clear pathways for highly-qualified military personnel leaving the armed forces to transition into civilian jobs.

Future Goals

But more needs to be done to strengthen corporate-military partnerships. Companies and government ministries should jointly sponsor apprenticeships and education bursaries for reservist recruits. Where it is practical, companies should establish formal workforce-sharing arrangements; for example, commercial drivers could surge back and forth from the military to civil sectors as required. The military should make it easier for reservists to leapfrog ranks based on their civilian CV; a senior director of a social media company might be more useful to an information operations unit by being allowed to join the reserve as a colonel rather than a junior lieutenant.

Defence ministries could place some of their more entrepreneurial staff in promising tech start-ups for sabbaticals. Tax breaks for companies employing reservists might spread the burden more fairly and encourage support. Reserve real estate, often situated in population centres and used infrequently, could be shared with commercial enterprises. Military and civilian qualifications should, where feasible, become interchangeable: a reservist first aider’s qualification should suffice in civilian workplaces. In short, companies need to be incentivised to become the recruiting sergeants of the reserves.

The rise of grey zone conflict demands a new form of deterrence in Europe. To defend against hidden threats that exploit the vulnerabilities of democratic, tech-dependent societies, European states will need to adopt whole-of-nation strategies. Deterrence will no longer be primarily the concern of the armed forces but a product of deep cooperation between the military and civil society. Reservists, with their feet in both camps, are key to making Europe more resilient but only if their corporate employers heed the call to arms.  

Gerhard Wheeler is a retired British Army brigadier whose last regular appointment was as Head of Reserves policy in the UK Ministry of Defence. He is now the Head of the Reserves practice at Universal Defence & Security Solutions.      

BANNER IMAGE: Courtesy of Elliott Brown/Flickr. 

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author's, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

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