Maritime Reserves: Grasping the Opportunity

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Kevin Shipp/Alamy Stock Photo | Royal Navy River-class offshore patrol vessel HMS Mersey


This paper examines whether and how the Maritime Reserves can bring extra fighting power at an affordable cost.

Sir Julian Brazier, former MP and government minister, and Keith Mans, Vice President of the Air League and former pilot, give an overview of the key discussions and outcomes of this series of RUSI papers

Executive Summary

The Integrated Review Refresh (IR23) describes a more contested and volatile world which may require greater defence capacity while funds remain tight. With a regular Naval Service that is already operating at or close to capacity,
there is little scope to surge. This paper examines whether and how the Maritime Reserves (MR) can bring extra fighting power at an affordable cost. 

The paper finds that one of the strengths of the MR is the calibre of many of its personnel. However, they have suffered from a lack of clarity on their purpose for several years. This has been exacerbated by the decision to stop training altogether for four months in 2020/21 and then to reduce budgets for training, including reserve training days, by 30%. Recent moves to restore training budgets and publish the new ‘Maritime Reserves Orders 2023–24’ 1  have been welcomed, as has progress in building and reshaping capabilities, especially in information warfare.

Nevertheless, fundamental conceptual and structural problems remain; there is a lack of ambition in the published requirement for reserves across many parts of the MR. Furthermore, the mission outlined in this year’s orders focuses on reservists exclusively as augmentees (although there are, in practice, a few exceptions), something out of line with the UK’s major Five Eyes counterparts. It also goes against best practice in comparable areas in its sister services, most notably for the Royal Marines Reserve (RMR), whose nearest counterparts in airborne and special forces view collective capability as essential for delivering operational demands and building unit spirit.

A bolder vision is necessary. That means being clear about requirements, which must be grounded in a proper understanding of what a reservist can deliver well, what they can turn their hand to, and what is impractical. It is no criticism of dedicated full-time leadership to say that the reserves need a stronger voice across Navy Command to provide that understanding. As is now the case in the Army, RAF and Strategic Command, this should include a part-time volunteer reservist voice on the Navy Board and in other Naval Service headquarters and policy branches. The Royal Navy Reserve (RNR) still has a well-developed officer structure (unlike the RAF Reserves, who are having to rebuild theirs) which would facilitate this.

Reserves could provide much greater affordable capacity in seagoing appointments and ashore. Seagoing reserves could be grown by recruiting officers with watchkeeping qualifications to crew offshore patrol and littoral vessels, and, with regular reserves, provide a surge capability in war to vessels in re-fit or as casualty replacements. Ashore, lessons from Ukraine suggest that growing a remotely-piloted aircraft division (RPAS) in HMS Pegasus (formerly the RNR Air Branch) from civilians skilled in operating drones would add significant value.

The decline in the number of pilots in HMS Pegasus has been driven by a combination of extreme pressure on flying hours and ever-increasing safety requirements from the Defence Safety Authority (DSA). This should be revisited, both to see whether small sums could significantly rebuild numbers of reserve pilots flying and whether DSA demands are truly necessary. The lack of surge capability means that the Naval Service would also struggle to expand its critical (and recently reduced) staffs.

This paper identifies that there are some roles which need to be re-examined in light of the deteriorating security environment, such as protection of ports, coastal critical national infrastructure (including nuclear power stations) and the littoral, which are currently largely neglected. Recent reports of Russian activity in the North Sea highlight this. 2  A reserve capability, including a substantial explosive ordnance disposal search element, including divers (a recently disbanded reserve capability, where safety considerations seem to be the driving force again) could provide a cost-effective solution, whether in the MR, the Coastguard or Army Reserves.

For the Marines, the RMR could be structured for use as formed bodies, similar to 4 Para and the Australian 1 Commando Regiment and 131 Commando Squadron RE. This would provide scalability for a very fine but expensive regular force,
greatly improving the offer to officers, who are only 65% recruited (with none aged under 30).

Unlike the other two services and Strategic Command, the MR budget is delivered centrally within the Naval Service, and then through Commander Maritime Reserves (COMMARRES). Delivering it through the capability areas could protect
them from savings measures made without knowledge of their impact on outputs, such as those in 2020. This would align the Royal Navy with the other services and Strategic Command. With this transfer should come a change in the chain
of command to align with capability owners and away from COMMARRES, allowing the latter to focus on areas such as N1 personnel matters, selection and recruiting, where reserves must be distinctive. The Naval Service leadership is right to recognise that reserves are needed, but a wider vision and structural change that maximises their value and amplifies the reservist voice are essential.

Building on recent progress, a bolder approach to the MR is recommended. This must identify the real need for maritime reserve forces, including scalability of both the Dark Blue and Lovat elements, at modest cost. A revised management
structure and newly appointed senior part-time volunteer reserve officers in each of the major headquarters should be at the heart of this approach.


WRITTEN BY

Sir Julian Brazier TD

Distinguished Fellow

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Christopher Hockley CBE DL

Expert in reserve forces

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Footnotes

1:
Royal Navy, ‘Maritime Reserves Orders 2023–24’. This was issued recently but has no publication date.
2:
BBC News, 'Russian Ships Accused of North Sea Sabotage – BBC News', YouTube, 20 April 2023, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2VVDaetyMd4, accessed 12 August 2023.

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