CGS is Right: The UK Must Urgently Rebuild its Capacity to Expand

Target practice: Army Reservists participate in infantry combat training in southwest Scotland. Image: MOD Crown Copyright News / Editorial Licence

Given the growing risk of a wider military confrontation with Russia, it is imperative that the UK puts in place affordable structures to increase the Army’s fighting strength and offer a pathway to further expansion. Central to this should be a focus on boosting reserve numbers as its second echelon.

UK Chief of the General Staff (CGS) Patrick Sanders’s recent lecture has prompted a wide range of reactions. The government has made it clear that there are no plans for conscription, something which was probably misread into his remarks by some of the media. He said:

‘We need an army designed to expand rapidly to enable the first echelon, resource the second echelon, and train and equip the citizen army that must follow. Within the next three years it must be credible to talk of a British Army of 120,000, folding in our reserve and strategic reserve. But this is not enough.’

It is worth noting that, even in the First World War, the highly successful national army the UK fielded did not have to resort to conscription until over a year and a half into the conflict. Reflecting on the preparations of the UK’s eastern and northern partners for national mobilisation, CGS said:

‘We will not be immune and as the pre-war generation we must similarly prepare – and that is a whole-of-nation undertaking.’

Surely this is right – indeed overdue. Achieving these changes will require putting in place affordable structures to grow the Army and wider Defence and, in the process, help to develop a sense of threat awareness and a resilient response which brings wider society into national defence.

Unlike its eastern and northern allies, the UK, as an island nation, does not face a direct land threat. Instead, we have always focused on a combination of naval (and later air) power with an expeditionary land component. ‘Expeditionary’ has meant principally to Europe since the American Revolution. Arguably, the best parallels lie in the UK’s principal Five Eyes allies – the US, Australia and Canada – who are also across water from potential enemies. And, of course, the UK can learn from its own history.

In both world wars, the vision in the UK and US was of a first echelon from the Regular Army, the second from volunteer reserves and the third from new units moving through a mixed bag of training organisations – both established and ad hoc – with conscription swelling numbers.

Perhaps the greatest challenge of rapid expansion is building citizen leaders. Soldiers can be quickly trained in war but, without officers and non-commissioned officers (NCOs), their usefulness is limited. The Ukrainians started with a regular army and a National Guard, and then had to expand hugely by recruiting civilians through a mixture of volunteering and conscription. Both the first two echelons performed well. For example, regulars rapidly recaptured Kiev airport from elite Russian troops, and the National Guard’s Azov Brigade held Mariupol gallantly for weeks.

Rebuilding the size and training of the Army Reserve is an urgent requirement, and CGS is right that it needs to be adequately resourced

In contrast, the hastily constituted ‘third echelon’ had no structure – despite containing some troops with former military experience (including a number of foreigners willing to fight for Ukraine) – and large numbers of lives were lost in poorly led early battles.

This is why there is a such a big qualitative difference between volunteer reserves (now called the Army Reserve in the UK) on the one hand, and subsequent formations constituted in war on the other. The Army Reserve trains and develops officers and NCOs and critically, as long as units train and fight together, builds the comradeship which is at the heart of fighting spirit. Two quotes a century apart illustrate this:

‘Without the assistance which the Territorials afforded between October 1914 and June 1915, it would have been impossible to hold the line in France and Belgium.’ – Sir John French

‘Somme Company was an outstanding body of men: well trained, highly motivated and exceptionally well led.’ – Sir John Lorimer, Afghanistan, 2008

Volunteer reserves can form fighting units at lower readiness than their regular counterparts but at roughly a fifth of the cost. This can provide affordable fighting mass – the bedrock of General Sanders’s second echelon.

Their officers are trained on the short course at Sandhurst – and sometimes partly by Officer Training Corps (OTCs) – and later prepared for company- and battalion-level command, with elements of regular courses or tailored reserve ones. The UK’s Five Eyes equivalents all have a similar approach, but with the difference that volunteer reserves make up a much larger proportion of their armed forces. For example, National Guard units make up roughly half of the US Army’s infantry and, for a time, reservists constituted a majority of its forces in Iraq.

Today, the UK’s Army Reserve – that crucial second echelon – is only a little over one quarter of the combined army, and its training and anti-tank and other support weapons have recently been cut to the bone, all to save very small sums. Rebuilding the size and training of the Army Reserve is thus an urgent requirement, and CGS is right that it needs to be adequately resourced.

Unlike the Regular Army, whose recruiting issues may take some years to deal with, the Army Reserve’s numbers could be speedily built in two ways. The first has already been identified as an option by CGS – that is, tapping into the near 50% of each ‘echelon’ of young people who are students, as all the UK’s major Five Eyes counterparts already do. While university OTCs do a good job on developing officers, they are a tiny element of the student population, and in the UK – as in the rest of the major Five Eyes – many students would rather serve as soldiers, at least to begin with.

The sort of initiative CGS suggests – offering gap-year students a month’s ‘boot camp’ – would be an excellent way to boost reserve recruiting, with two critical caveats. First, the course must be much more demanding than the current pedestrian initial training (Phase 1); it is no accident that the two units which ‘do their own’ training to a higher standard, 4 Para and the Honourable Artillery Company, are both over-recruited. Second, a good proportion of the instructors need to be reservists with the kind of impressive civilian jobs that participants can identify with as role models.

Volunteer reserves are embedded in the civilian world, and leaders in politics, journalism, business and technology can help to construct a wider understanding of the threats the UK faces and the measures needed to combat them

The astonishing delays in the recruiting pipeline for both regulars and reserves that have frequently been reported elsewhere must be fixed. But there is a second easy way to boost reserve recruiting: taking the marketing element away from the regular-orientated (national) recruiting contract and giving it to unit commanding officers, supported by Reserve Forces and Cadets Associations with all their local contacts, so that they can put out a distinctive message aimed at those with civilian jobs who are looking to do something in addition, rather than the recruiting campaigns aimed at those looking for a primary career. The Australian army’s marketing, for example, captures reserve service entirely, but is wholly irrelevant to potential regulars.

A further important point is that the Army Reserve could be greatly expanded at low cost – even lower than the 1:5 ratio referred to above – without loss of quality. This is because such a high proportion of its funding is tied up in full-time permanent staff and buildings. Taking an infantry battalion as an example, a rifle company typically has only two rifle platoons and a single section of support weapons, but each support weapons section has a permanent instructor. Increasing that to three platoons, a support weapons platoon and (as was the case until recently) counting those waiting for specialist (Phase 2) training as recruits would double the establishment for reserve numbers. Yet, because it would not require an extra permanent member of staff or any extra buildings, the cost increase would be modest, and far less than the proportionate gain in capability.

Moreover, the capability of reserve units could be enhanced by small additions to battalion and regimental headquarters, especially rebuilding intelligence sections and signals capability. Officer numbers could easily be boosted if Sandhurst were to restore its summer course to fit university summer vacations, so that student applicants (including those from the new scheme) could take part without having to finish the first two fortnight ‘bricks’ with OTCs first.

This brings us to the third echelon. As reserve units are brought up to full deployment, their infrastructure can be released – more than 300 reserve centres around the country with permanent staff trainees would be available to train the next wave. The UK must gain leverage from these assets.

The benefits of this kind of approach extend beyond the growth in mass itself in two important ways. First, civilians can provide key skills in areas the Army will always struggle to replicate and retain, from cyber to medicine. In Ukraine, the impressive use of civilian and adapted drones has been carried out largely by civilian practitioners.

Second – and even more important – volunteer reserves are embedded in the civilian world, and leaders in politics, journalism, business and technology can help to construct a wider understanding of the threats the UK faces and the measures needed to combat them, going well beyond the immediate need for more defence spending.

CGS is right that ‘Ukraine brutally illustrates that regular armies start wars. Citizen armies win them’. The UK needs to rebuild that second echelon to enable the third and help to rebuild national resilience.

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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Sir Julian Brazier TD

Distinguished Fellow

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