Future Reserves 2020

The UK Government has announced plans to give a greater role to Army Reserves. These proposals offer better career paths for reservists. Successful implementation will require a cultural shift within the forces, particularly among the regulars, and support from employers.

Last week (8 November 2012) the Government published its long-awaited Green Paper, Future Reserves 2020: Delivering the Nation's Security Together. In his oral statement to the House of Commons on 8 November 2012, the Secretary of State for Defence, Philip Hammond, averred the vital role that reserve forces now play: 'In the last 10 years, more than 25,000 reservists have deployed on operations overseas, and more than 2,000 deployed in support of the Olympic games this summer'. He received wide yet critical cross-party support. Jim Murphy, Hammond's shadow, stated it 'is now clear that our nation's security will [not only] depend on the professionalism of our reservists' [but also] 'on the Government's ability to get this right'. 

The consultation paper should be warmly welcomed within the armed forces, and with any luck amongst employers too, as it signals the end of a period of considerable uncertainty.  The document provides a new sense of strategic purpose and direction for the reserves, drawing on the essential foundation work of the Future Reserves 2020 commission, which presented its report in July last year.

Set in a broader context, moreover, the new Green Paper represents a crucially important step, particularly for the Army, in realising its 'Army 2020' future structure that integrates 82,000 regulars and 30,000 trained reservists into one  'Whole Force'.  The consultation period runs until 18 January 2013; comments can be made on-line. Let's hope that the public and interested groups engage actively.

Generating the Right Numbers

Whether the reserve forces of the future will be 'better trained, better equipped and better resourced than ever before', however, rests on a number of assumptions, not least that sufficient reservists can be recruited, trained and retained. As the Paper makes clear, generating the right numbers and appropriate capabilities in future will be essential. This benign state of affairs will largely depend on the widest possible acceptance of the so-called 'Proposition to Reservists'.  This should represent a new 'offer' to reservists that must be complemented by an equivalent offer to employers. They will not only benefit from reservists' skills and motivation, but under the Paper's proposals, they are likely to receive formal recognition for their co-operation and engagement in a national 'Kitemark' scheme.  In return, the Government expects individuals to make themselves available and firms to facilitate reservists' leave of absence in order to meet their training obligations. This will allow them to be deployed, normally at longer notice than past practice, for a wide set of commitments, including standing tasks such as garrison duties in the Falkland Islands. If all this can be made to work, then a new compact of mutual benefit between reservists, regulars, employers and the Government should arise.

Incentivising Reservists

So how is this going to be achieved? To achieve new operational capabilities, and hence greater effectiveness as well as cost-efficiencies, there will be a significant shift of emphasis in the manner in which reserve forces will be employed, especially within the Army. Recent practice in Afghanistan has seen non-medical reservists being deployed exclusively as individuals rather than in formed sub-units or units. While attractive to regular forces in that it fills gaps within units, it has a deleterious, long-term, effect on the reserve forces themselves, which the Green Paper recognises.


What incentive will there be to committed individuals of talent - the future company commanders and sergeant majors - to remain in the reserve forces if they are never to command the troops they are training? This point must become central to the new proposition. So, without returning to the Cold War situation when the Territorial Army provided large blocks of a fully mobilised order of battle for General War, there is a middle ground that future reserve forces can occupy. The key here is the close pairing with regular forces, together with the growth of specialist functions such as cyber.  Strangely, the one significant area that the Opposition does not support at present is the new emphasis on formed bodies of reservists. These already work very well in the US, Canada and Australia and for the UK prior to 2009.

Future success will depend not only on organisational developments at the collective level. The quality of the overall 'deal' perceived by individuals remains crucial. In any design of the future reserves, therefore, the career structure of reservists needs to become a central plank of personnel planning. Their particular aspirations, particularly when they are holding down demanding civilian jobs and then when they are deployed (and employers will want a say here as well), need to be fully addressed when meeting the Services' and Defence's requirements. Fundamental to achieving this in the Army will be the role of the new appointment of deputy Commander-in-Chief, which echoes the arrangements in our sister countries. An officer who has earned his bread primarily in the civilian world should occupy this post. Across the Services, 'genuine' reservists who understand their comrades-in-arms' concerns and needs should be employed within the staffing chain of major headquarters.

Agile Career Paths

The Paper recognises rightly that the provision of welfare, health and family support to reservists needs development. This is a most welcome measure. Furthermore, a far more agile career path needs to be developed in which regulars not only can become reservists but also the latter can join, or revert to, regular service.  Such duty of care and flexibility of career must lie at the moral and conceptual heart of Future Reserves 2020. Yet it cannot be stressed enough that the viability of the Green Paper's proposals rests on a cultural shift within the forces (particularly among the regulars) to embrace these proposals wholeheartedly.

Finally, what's in a name? The Green Paper trails a shift from the Territorial Army (that celebrated its centenary in 2008) to a new 'Army Reserve'. There are good presentational grounds, no doubt, for signalling a new departure, but equally care should be taken in any new branding exercise. Many will remember the Post Office's ill-fated 'Consignia' episode.  For my money, I would include 'Volunteer' in the new title - it has, after all, a strong and proud historical tradition in this nation. We forget at our peril that the volunteer reserves represent a vital link between the armed forces and civil society - with local communities across the land.                                                                     

The views expressed here are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI.


Major General Mungo Melvin CB OBE MA

Senior Associate Fellow

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